Friday, December 25, 2009

The Notebook 2004

Young love -- the old-fashioned kind that flourished before the age of the hook-up -- has always been one of the most challenging emotions to portray on the screen with any specificity. Beyond the smooches, sighs, and adoring glances, how do you convey the reality of a shared, private paradise?

In the strongest scenes of ''The Notebook,'' the screen adaptation of Nicholas Sparks's treacly best seller, Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams break through the barrier to evoke high-strung, slightly crazed teenagers plunging headlong into first love. It is passion that begins in playfulness. Their performances are so spontaneous and combustible that you quickly identify with the reckless sweethearts, who embody an innocence that has all but vanished from American teenage life. And against your better judgment, you root for the pair to beat the odds against them.

The romantic drama, directed by Nick Cassavetes from a screenplay by Jeremy Leven and adapted by Jan Sardi from the novel, opens today nationwide. It is told in flashback as Duke (James Garner), a garrulous, ailing old codger in a comfortable nursing home, reads aloud excerpts of a love story to Allie Calhoun (Gena Rowlands), a patient suffering from Alzheimer's. She is so smitten with the 1940's tale of Noah (Mr. Gosling), a poor Southern boy who works in a lumberyard, and his wealthy girlfriend, also named Allie (Ms. McAdams), that for brief intervals his readings jog her blurred memory into focus.

As the movie seesaws between Seabrook, N.C., in the summer of 1940, when Noah and Allie meet at a fairground, and the present, it is deliberately (and annoyingly) coy as to who these oldsters might be. Gosh, could they be the same young lovers six decades later?

Mr. Garner and Ms. Rowlands are wonderful actors, but Mr. Garner, in particular, plays ''old'' with a hammy avuncularity that sugarcoats his character with a glaze of nostalgia. His performance reinforces the impression that in Hollywood, old age is even more difficult to depict with real honesty than young love. Ms. Rowlands's Allie is quieter and sadder, but she looks too well-preserved for a woman in her condition, and as the story leaps back and forth, the movie veers between unbleached sugar and artificial sweetener.

When Noah meets Allie, he is so desperate to impress her that he hangs on the rungs of a Ferris wheel and threatens to jump if she won't go out with him. Even at the beginning, Mr. Gosling's performance emphasizes Noah's slightly creepy streak of fanaticism. After the lovers have separated, he withdraws into himself, grows a beard, and with a small inheritance from his poetry-loving father (Sam Shepard), a Walt Whitman fan, he converts the rotting old mansion he once dreamed of sharing with Allie into the showplace he promised to build for her. He also serves in World War II, where he sees his best friend die in the Battle of the Bulge.

Ms. McAdams, who played the alpha queen in ''Mean Girls,'' matches Mr. Gosling's Noah in idiosyncratic verve. Impulsive, giggly and combative, she exudes the air of a careless rich girl bursting out of a bubble, until the moment her stern, watchful mother, Anne (Joan Allen), puts her foot down and ends the relationship.

The scenes between the young lovers confronting adult authority have the same seething tension and lurking hysteria that the young Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood brought more than 40 years ago to their roles in ''Splendor in the Grass.'' The power of Ms. Allen's performance comes out of understatement. Impeccably coiffed and outfitted, barely moving her tight lips, she projects the full emotional depth of composure under siege.

Like most movies that span many decades, chapters of ''The Notebook'' seem scrunched together. The war, in particular, passes in a flash. It is as a nurse's aide that Allie meets Lon (James Marsden), a dashing, seriously injured soldier from a wealthy Southern family. Once recovered, he courts Allie aggressively and, just when the beautiful couple are on the verge of marrying and becoming the toast of Charleston society, she reads a newspaper article about Noah's architectural restoration and promptly faints. A reunion is in order.

For a movie that might have plunged full-scale into bathos, ''The Notebook'' tries to remain restrained. The camera caresses the lush Southern landscape of blood-red sunsets and flocks of ducks, and Aaron Zigman's romantic score drizzles only a light coating of syrup over the ice cream.

''The Notebook'' is a high-toned cinematic greeting card. It insists on true, mystical, eternal love, till death do us part, and won't have it any other way.

A Walk to Remember 2002

At the beginning of ''A Walk to Remember,'' Landon Carter (Shane West), a troubled North Carolina teenager, gathers with a bunch of his beer-drinking, blaspheming buddies for an initiation rite, which goes terribly wrong when another young man jumps off some industrial scaffolding into a shallow river.

For his part in the incident, Landon is sentenced by his school's principal to a term of community service that includes tutoring, custodial work, participation in the school play and falling in love with Jamie Sullivan, a preacher's daughter played with a beatific glow by Mandy Moore, the MTV pop princess.

I'm still not sure what I did wrong, but for some reason I was sentenced to spend 97 minutes in the wholesome purgatory that is ''A Walk to Remember.'' I wish I could say that the experience left me a better person, or that, in the favored idiom of studio publicity copy, it ''changed my life forever,'' but by the end I was tempted to go off in search of some industrial scaffolding and a shallow river of my own.

Directed by Adam Shankman from Nicholas Sparks's inspirational novel, ''A Walk to Remember'' proves that a movie about goodness is not the same thing as a good movie. The story is a cleaned-up version of the John Hughes formula that was mercilessly lampooned in ''Not Another Teen Movie.''

In this case, the misfit girl, Jamie, is shunned not for her weirdness but for simple, earnest goodness. Although Peter Coyote, who plays her widowed father, bears a passing resemblance to the Harry Dean Stanton of the mid-1980's, the Reverend Sullivan hits the Bible, rather than the bottle. Like ''Not Another Teen Movie,'' and unlike Mr. Hughes's films, this one features a token black guy, played by Al Thompson, who says things like ''a brother like me wants to get his freak on'' and ''you're not feeling my hip-hop.''

No indeed. One indication of Landon's reformation is that he tunes out Missy Elliott's naughty ''Get Ur Freak On'' in favor of Christian pop. The movie's deep message seems to be that bad music is good for you. The pivotal moment comes when Ms. Moore, resplendent in crimped hair and a silver gown, belts out an interminable, gooey ballad during the school play.

The movie is not content to make Jamie a good girl; she must be a martyr as well. I don't think I'm spoiling anything. Midway through the movie, Jamie says to Landon, ''I warned you not to fall in love with me.'' (Too late!) This drew a gasp from a young woman behind me at the teenager-packed sneak preview. ''That's it,'' she said to her friends. ''She's sick. She's dying.'' And, sure enough, a few minutes later, Jamie said to Landon: ''I'm sick. I'm dying,'' and the story shifted from ''Pretty in Pink'' to ''Love Story.''

By then the camera had swooped heavenward enough times to hint at the movie's final destination. The audience, however, was stuck here on earth -- which is, come to think of it, the name of another soapy teen romance, with Leelee Sobieski and Chris Klein. God help us.

''A Walk to Remember'' is rated PG (Parental guidance suggested). Before they learn the error of their ways, Landon and his pals dabble in profanity, and Jamie does, for a moment, bare her left shoulder.

Hope Floats (1998)

Sandra Bullock is actually seen cheerleading in a flashback during ''Hope Floats,'' which suits this role and so many others she has played. In her best approximation of America's high school sweetheart since ''While You Were Sleeping,'' Ms. Bullock is cast as a one-time prom queen named Birdee Pruitt who falls on hard times. So Birdee goes back home to sweet little Smithville, Tex., and basks in the small-town wisdom she finds there. Like: ''Maybe you were like the rest of us, 'cept you were ridin' around on flowers made out of toilet paper. That's all.''

''Hope Floats'' begins on a tell-all talk show, where the studiously compassionate host (Kathy Najimy) reveals that Birdee's husband (Michael Pare) has been cheating on her with her best friend (an unbilled Rosanna Arquette). The talk-show mood survives into the film's main story, which takes on such issues as divorce, single motherhood, mother-daughter relationships, the health problems of aging relatives and summoning the courage to date again. The screenplay by Steven Rogers supplies sensitive dialogue to match, as in: ''The harder I tried to be what he wanted me to be, the less I saw in his eyes. And then one day I looked and I was gone.''

After ''Waiting to Exhale,'' Forest Whitaker again directs a film aimed strictly at women, with a pajama-party intimacy that can be disarming when it isn't overdone. Ms. Bullock makes Birdee very sympathetic and gives her a becoming humility to atone for those beauty queen years, which should go a long way toward winning over anyone who can get past the film's title and its slow pace.

''Hope Floats,'' which often resembles a rosy commercial, does indulge in too much awkward slow motion, and in occasional embarrassing romps that are meant to signify family fun. For instance, there's the scene in which Ms. Bullock, with pigtails and a blacked-out front tooth, sings a Motown song with her Mom (Gena Rowlands) using a wooden spoon as a microphone, in an effort to cheer up her lonely young daughter (Mae Whitman, who gives zest to this potentially cloying role).

Terribly cute touches abound, like Birdee's mother's hobby of stuffing dead animals and dressing them up in clothing. (Ms. Rowland's performance is a lot more likably down to earth than that.) Supposedly cutest of all is the aw-shucks hometown hunk who seems to have been waiting for Birdee's return ever since she went away. As played stiffly by Harry Connick Jr., he lacks the dreamboat appeal that the screenplay specifies, but he treats Birdee nicely and has much to recommend him. For instance, he is building an architecturally interesting house out of stained glass and antique Texas pine. And at a local party, he tells Birdee: ''Dancin's just a conversation between two people. Talk to me.''

Eased along by slow ballads on the soundtrack and given a sunlit prettiness by Caleb Deschanel's cinematography (which leaves overhead microphones starkly visible in a couple of scenes), ''Hope Floats'' has a peaceful, nostalgic mood that echoes the far more compelling romanticism of ''The Horse Whisperer.'' In this more mundane version, the catch phrases are ''my cup runneth over'' and (whenever Ms. Bullock tucks her screen daughter into bed) ''snug as a bug in a rug.''

''Hope Floats'' is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). It includes mild profanity and a discreet sexual situation.


Directed by Forest Whitaker; written by Steven Rogers; director of photography, Caleb Deschanel; edited by Richard Chew; music by Dave Grusin; production designer, Larry Fulton; produced by Lynda Obst; released by 20th Century Fox. Running time: 112 minutes. This film is rated PG-13.

WITH: Sandra Bullock (Birdee Pruitt), Harry Connick Jr. (Justin Matisse), Gena Rowlands (Ramona Calvert), Mae Whitman (Bernice Pruitt), Michael Pare (Bill Pruitt), Kathy Najimy (Toni Post) and Rosanna Arquette (Friend).

While You Were Sleeping 1995

Feel-good romantic comedies don't feel good when they deliver an empty, saccharine view of the world. On the other hand, when they're as breezy and adorable as "While You Were Sleeping," it's time to fall in love. This is a formula film, but it has the kind of good cheer and fine tuning that occasionally give slickness a good name. The year may be young, but the first hit of the summer is here.

It's not marquee value that insures the success of "While You Were Sleeping," which stars Sandra Bullock and Bill Pullman. It's the word-of-mouth-worthy fact that this spirited screwball romance creates a rosy glow. Credit much of that to a smoothly workmanlike director, Jon Turteltaub, whose "Cool Runnings" was unabashed fun and who has much better material this time. Ms. Bullock and Mr. Pullman also deserve credit for setting enough sparks to melt snow.

The film takes place at Christmastime in Chicago, where Lucy (Ms. Bullock) has a thankless job collecting tokens at a municipal train station. ("I sit in a booth like a veal," she says.) Lucy is terribly lonely, and she does not lead a charmed life. Regulars order lunch from the local hot-dog vendor by asking for "the usual." When the practically invisible Lucy tries saying that, he has no idea what she means.

People seem to forget Lucy all the time, but no one does it more spectacularly than Peter Callahan (Peter Gallagher), the handsome Mr. Right for whom she has been pining within her glass cage. One day, Lucy watches in horror as Peter is mugged. Then she leaps to the tracks and rescues him from an oncoming train. "Oh, God, you smell good!" Lucy exclaims while trying to save him. In the midst of this, Peter opens his eyes and spies Lucy, after which he falls into a coma from which he may never emerge.

Movies about coma patients aren't necessarily funny -- not when the coma barely spoils anybody's day. Yet "While You Were Sleeping" bustles along happily and follows Lucy to the hospital, where a nurse mistakenly identifies her as Peter's fiancee. Next thing she knows, she is surrounded by the Callahans, who travel in a pack and may just be the family she longs for. In any case, she's stuck with them: Lucy can't explain the mixup without the risk of giving Grandma Callahan (Glynis Johns) a stroke.

The plot thickens irresistibly with the arrival of Jack (Mr. Pullman), Peter's suspicious brother, who regards Lucy with a lot more curiosity than the situation demands. And she, in the words of her pesty neighbor and would-be swain, Joe Jr. (Michael Rispoli, a scene-stealing treat), looks at Jack "like you just seen your first Trans-Am." That sounds as if the film is ready to collapse into sentimentality, but it works wonders with the long, obstacle-strewn path to a sunny ending. Incidentally, Lucy is so hapless that she forgets to take off her overcoat en route to the altar.

Ms. Bullock is the film's main attraction, bringing a warm smile and a winning array of mannerisms to her role. A shy heroine in the gorgeous-wallflower tradition, she drowns in oversized clothing as Annie Hall did and seems in a perpetual state of comic dishevelment. Forever covering her mouth bashfully or shrugging off life's affronts to her dignity, she has trouble only with being too radiant for her character's supposed mousiness. Well, that's what makes this a fairy tale.

And Mr. Pullman, the fine comic foil last seen sparring murderously with Linda Fiorentino in "The Last Seduction," becomes a crowd-pleasing leading man. As Jack does a perpetual slow burn in Lucy's presence, Mr. Pullman smolders with consummate ease. Connecting with Ms. Bullock far more successfully than Keanu Reeves did in "Speed," he engages in the graceful teamwork that really makes this story click. As written by Daniel G. Sullivan and Fredric Lebow with echoes of well-worn screwball love stories, "While You Were Sleeping" touches familiar comic bases with effervescent style.

The supporting cast is especially solid, with Peter Boyle and Jack Warden on hand to wisecrack expertly (as Peter and Jack's father and neighbor, respectively), Jason Bernard as Lucy's ever-patient boss, and Mr. Gallagher to wake up entertainingly for the story's third act. As Mr. Turteltaub keeps the actors humming and the material nicely on track, he also throws in occasional sight gags that recall the good-natured slapstick of "Cool Runnings." Watch the one about the newsboy and wonder why it doesn't happen more often.

"While You Were Sleeping" is rated PG (Parental guidance suggested). It includes very mild profanity and very faint sexual innuendoes. WHILE YOU WERE SLEEPING Directed by John Turteltaub; written by Daniel G. Sullivan and Fredric Lebow; director of photography, Phedon Papamichael; edited by Bruce Green; music by Randy Edelman; production designer, Garreth Stover; produced by Joe Roth and Roger Birnbaum; released by Hollywood Pictures. Running time: 100 minutes. This film is rated PG. WITH: Sandra Bullock (Lucy), Bill Pullman (Jack), Peter Gallagher (Peter), Peter Boyle (Ox), Jack Warden (Saul), Glynis Johns (Elsie), Michael Rispoli (Joe Jr.) and Jason Bernard (Jerry).

You've Got Mail 1998

When Meg Ryan's character gets the sniffles and retreats from the world in ''You've Got Mail,'' she puts on pajamas and curls up in bed with her trusty laptop or a favorite book. Someday, when this cozy romantic comedy becomes a videocassette, it too will be a comfort object perfect for such moments.

Ms. Ryan, Tom Hanks and the archly funny Nora Ephron join forces, this time much more easily than they did in ''Sleepless in Seattle,'' to make an inviting love story that entangles a man, a woman, a couple of computers and a New York neighborhood so picturesquely idealized that it feels like Paris. Even if you already live on the Upper West Side, you might feel the urge to move there before the film is over.

The essence of that place, its populace and this precise moment in our technological evolution are captured so endearingly here that ''You've Got Mail'' becomes a New York story reminiscent of early Woody Allen romances, turning the characters into charmingly neurotic products of the place they call home. And in this setting, as far as ''You've Got Mail'' is concerned, the most important landmarks are intimate little hangouts and good old-fashioned books.

Being firmly on the side of the angels, this film treasures the written word so proudly that the closing credits thank a long list of publishing houses. And they really ought to be thanking Ms. Ephron in return. The film's mix of romance and reading matter is seductive in its own right, providing comfy book-lined settings and people who are what they read and write. When they fall in love, they do it wistfully, as if not quite believing that real life can measure up to really good fiction.

The most important literary outpourings here are those exchanged through E-mail, which makes the film that much more amusingly attuned to its time. The screenplay by Ms. Ephron and her sister, Delia Ephron, adapts Ernst Lubitsch's 1940 delight, ''The Shop Around the Corner,'' to the E-mail age with gratifying ingenuity and with its share of extra observations about how times have changed. The star-crossed correspondents, who in Lubitsch's film were employees of the same amazingly gracious retail establishment, have been promoted to people who run their own businesses. That makes their stress and loneliness all the more real, to the point where it's easy to see what drives Joe Fox (Mr. Hanks) and Kathleen Kelly (Ms. Ryan) into the world of cyberflirtation.

By making Kathleen the second-generation owner of a sweet little bookstore for children (titles on the shelves have clearly been chosen with loving care) and Joe the tycoon whose megastore may stomp her out of business, the film gives an additional shrewd angle to its foolproof old story.

It seems that Kathleen and Joe loathe each other in person but are unwittingly close confidants, electronically sharing their innermost thoughts. Should this sound merely like a lot of typing, Ms. Ephron finds plenty of ways to put laptops in bed and otherwise make E-mail visually interesting, starting with a nifty credit sequence that turns all New York into the environment for a video game. In addition, she makes time for shots at the big bookstore as a place that sells ''cheap books and legal addictive stimulants,'' in the wry words of Mr. Hanks's Joe. That's about as nasty as Joe needs to be under feel-good circumstances like these.

The film wafts through its urban paradise, a litter-free place full of flowers and friendly passers-by, as it watches Kathleen and Joe warily circling each other. Complicating matters are a few too many supporting characters, though many of these get the screenplay's best lines. (Says Jean Stapleton, as a genteel older friend of Kathleen's, about an old flame: ''It wasn't meant to be. He ran Spain.'')

But the film nicely incorporates its minor figures into its sociological milieu, like the two little children who are among Joe's next of kin. ''Matt is my father's son,'' he explains. ''Annabel is my grandfather's daughter. We are'' pause ''an American family.'' Dabney Coleman and John Randolph play the much-married fathers, and at one point three generations of lonely male Foxes find themselves luxuriously ensconced on family boats at the 79th Street Boat Basin.

Ms. Ryan plays her role blithely and credibly this time, with an air of freshness, a minimum of cute fidgeting and a lot of fond chemistry with Mr. Hanks. And he continues to amaze. Once again, he fully inhabits a new role without any obvious actorly behavior, to the point where comparisons to James Stewart (who starred with Margaret Sullavan in the Lubitsch film) really cannot be avoided.

Though he has none of Mr. Stewart's lanky grace or leading-man patina, the wonderful Mr. Hanks has all the same romantic wistfulness and the same poignant shyness when he learns who Kathleen really is. He shares Mr. Stewart's lovely way of speaking from the heart. Mr. Hanks also makes fine use of the film's comic opportunities, as in a scene that has him explaining how ''The Godfather'' resembles the I Ching as a guide to life. ''What should I take on vacation?'' he asks rhetorically. Advice from ''The Godfather'' on this question goes this way: ''Leave the gun, take the cannoli.''

In a film that makes Kathleen's sensibility clear by having her quote Joni Mitchell, the principals' erstwhile mates are part of the trenchant local color. Parker Posey plays Joe's girlfriend, a piranha from the publishing world (''Patricia makes coffee nervous,'' Joe remarks), and Greg Kinnear plays a writer for The New York Observer prone to stupefying pronouncements. These characters are as apt a part of the scenery as Dan Davis's warm, audience-friendly production design.

''You've Got Mail'' deserves to trigger a revived interest in the late honey-voiced singer Harry Nilsson, whose music on the lighthearted soundtrack provides just the right mix of jauntiness and yearning. Mr. Nilsson's beautiful music hasn't figured this prominently in a film since it turned up in ''Midnight Cowboy,'' used to quite different effect.

''You've Got Mail'' is rated PG (Parental guidance suggested). It includes mild profanity and tender clinches.


Directed by Nora Ephron; written by Nora Ephron and Delia Ephron, based on the Ernst Lubitsch comedy ''The Shop Around the Corner,'' written by Samson Raphaelson from the play ''Parfumerie'' by Miklos Laszlo; director of photography, John Lindley; edited by Richard Marks; music by George Fenton; production designer, Dan Davis; produced by Lauren Shuler Donner and Nora Ephron; released by Warner Brothers. Running time: 110 minutes. This film is rated PG.

WITH: Tom Hanks (Joe Fox), Meg Ryan (Kathleen Kelly), Parker Posey (Patricia Eden), Jean Stapleton (Birdie), Dave Chappelle (Kevin Scanlon), Steve Zahn (George Pappas), Greg Kinnear (Frank Navasky), Dabney Coleman (Joe's father) and John Randolph (Joe's grandfather).

Ghosts 1990

LEAD: Current Hollywood thinking extends into the next world, but not very far. Being dead has lately been presented on screen as a character-building experience, but beyond that the current ghost films hedge their bets. The questions of just what ghosts can do, of what effect ghosts may have on others or even of how ghosts regard their new status are seldom even addressed.

Current Hollywood thinking extends into the next world, but not very far. Being dead has lately been presented on screen as a character-building experience, but beyond that the current ghost films hedge their bets. The questions of just what ghosts can do, of what effect ghosts may have on others or even of how ghosts regard their new status are seldom even addressed. What seems most important is that ghosts come to the aid of their loved ones, and that the ghost film manages, at least on its own terms, to be sincere.

''Ghost,'' which stars Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore as lovers separated by that great, trend-minded screenwriter in the sky, is nothing if not earnest. It's also eccentric enough to remain interesting even when its ghost story isn't easy to believe. As directed by Jerry Zucker, previously known as part of the three-man directing team behind comedies like ''Airplane!'' and ''Ruthless People,'' ''Ghost'' veers repeatedly from the somber to the broadly comic, with a number of strange but appealingly offbeat digressions along the way. This may, for instance, be the only film with a steamily romantic sequence in which the hero and the heroine get together and make pottery.

''Ghost'' begins by presenting Sam Wheat, an improbably named investment banker (Mr. Swayze), and Molly Jensen, an up-and-coming artist (Ms. Moore), as an idyllically happy New York couple moving into a new loft. But an angel being hoisted into the loft's window, a news report of an airplane crash and even Molly's desire to see a performance of ''Macbeth'' - all these things foretell trouble. Sure enough, Sam and Molly are strolling amorously down a deserted street when a gun-toting mugger appears. Sam's number is up.

The film's attitude about ghosthood is so uncertain that it doesn't allow Sam much chance to adjust. He finds himself in a hospital emergency room, where a fellow ghost (Phil Leeds) talks like a borscht-belt comic; he wanders around dazedly trying to get used to the fact that he can walk through doors and turnstiles. He returns to Molly but can't communicate with her at all. He discovers a terrible secret about a colleague, even though the audience is already miles ahead of him. (For the forseeable future, it looks as though the mere sight of suspenders will be enough to seal a yuppie film character's fate.) Fortunately, the third of the film's three stars is Whoopi Goldberg, the one performer here who seems to have a clear idea of what she's up to. Dressed in a long teased wig and flowing gold robes, Ms. Goldberg plays a disreputable medium named Oda Mae Brown who is horrified to find one of her bogus seances interrupted by a real ghost. Oda Mae becomes Sam's means of communicating with the corporeal world, and Ms. Goldberg plays the character's amazement, irritation and great gift for back talk to the hilt. This is one of those rare occasions on which the uncategorizable Ms. Goldberg has found a film role that really suits her, and she makes the most of it.

Mr. Swayze duly registers all the emotions called for by Bruce Joel Rubin's screenplay, and does best when called upon to look uncomplicatedly stalwart or express himself in some physical way. Ms. Moore combines toughness and delicacy most attractively, but the story requires her to look terminally wistful much of the time. Mr. Zucker's direction needlessly defuses much of what goes on between these two separated lovers by keeping Mr. Swayze on screen too much of the time, so that he's less like a ghost than an albatross in certain scenes. Unable to communicate with the living or even react very much, he must simply sit by helplessly until they finish talking.

Only late in the story, with the help of a strange fellow ghost who inhabits the subway (Vincent Schiavelli), does Sam develop the power to express himself directly, and to wreak revenge on those who have betrayed him. Even at this stage the film has its odd inconsistencies, particularly in a scene for which Mr. Zucker bends the rules of ghosthood to allow the lovers one last dance.

''Ghost'' is too slow moving at times, and a few of its special effects look incongruously silly, particularly those showing what happens to ghosts not as virtuous as Sam. These days, as movie-making logic seems to dictate, it's the nice guys who are allowed to stay.

''Ghost'' is rated PG-13 (''Special Parental Guidance Suggested for Those Younger Than 13''). It includes one sexual sequence and occasional off-color language.


Directed by Jerry Zucker; written by Bruce Joel Rubin; director of photography, Adam Greenberg; edited by Walter Murch; music by Maurice Jarre; production designer, Jane Musky; produced by Lisa Weinstein; released by Paramount Pictures. Running time: 122 minutes. This film is rated PG-13.

Sam Wheat...Patrick Swayze
Molly Jensen...Demi Moore
Oda Mae Brown...Whoopi Goldberg
Carl Bruner...Tony Goldwyn
Willie Lopez...Rick Aviles
Oda Mae's Sister No. 2...Gail Boggs
Oda Mae's Sister No. 1...Armelia McQueen
Subway Ghost...Vincent Schiavelli
Emergency Room Ghost...Phil Leeds

When Harry Met Sally 1993

LEAD: The opening credits feature Woody Allen's trademark white letters on a black background, with a jaunty version of ''It Had to Be You'' on the soundtrack. The score is rich with Gershwin, the camera infatuated with Manhattan, the dialogue obsessed with love, sex and death. Altogether, Rob Reiner's ''When Harry Met Sally .

The opening credits feature Woody Allen's trademark white letters on a black background, with a jaunty version of ''It Had to Be You'' on the soundtrack. The score is rich with Gershwin, the camera infatuated with Manhattan, the dialogue obsessed with love, sex and death. Altogether, Rob Reiner's ''When Harry Met Sally . . .'' is the most blatant bow from one director to another since Mr. Allen imitated Ingmar Bergman in ''Interiors.''

On and off for 11 years, Harry (Billy Crystal) and Sally (Meg Ryan) ostensibly debate whether men and women can be nonsexual friends. But that issue instantly evaporates and the question becomes: When will they realize they were made for each other? What Harry and Sally do in the meantime - the true focus of this often funny but amazingly hollow film - is saunter through the romanticized lives of intelligent, successful, neurotic New Yorkers.

Harry and Sally's version of the city offers constant jolts of recognition, as it dwells on carefully specified landmarks and echoes ''Annie Hall'' and ''Manhattan.'' At the Temple of Dendur in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, they discuss dating. In autumn, they stroll by gloriously bright trees in Central Park (Sally wears an Annie Hall hat) and describe their recurring sex dreams. They walk by the glittering Christmas display at Rockefeller Center and the decorated windows at Saks Fifth Avenue. And when Harry and Sally join their two best friends at a SoHo restaurant, half of the people at that table write for New York magazine.

Mr. Allen can get away with such a rarefied vision because, as he put it in ''Manhattan'': ''He adored New York City. He idolized it all out of proportion.'' Gently mocking his own romanticism, Mr. Allen gives his films depth and a believable, astringent undertone. But Mr. Reiner has a simple faith in fated love, which makes his film cute and sentimental rather than romantic and charming. ''When Harry Met Sally . . .'' is like the sitcom version of a Woody Allen film, full of amusing lines and scenes, all infused with an uncomfortable sense of deja vu.

When Harry and Sally first meet, in 1977, they are University of Chicago graduates driving to New York together. Harry seems carefree, but is pessimistic enough to read the last page of a book first; in case he dies, he says, at least he'll know how it ends. And know-it-all Sally insists that Ingrid Bergman really wanted to leave Humphrey Bogart. ''I don't want to spend the rest of my life in Casablanca with a guy who owns a bar,'' she argues, in a line that nails precisely who she is at that moment. Ten years later, after Harry's wife has left him and Sally has broken up with her boyfriend, they become best friends.

Mr. Crystal and Ms. Ryan are appealing and sometimes even unpredictable. Mr. Crystal has the wittiest lines and snappiest delivery, but he also shows Harry to be remarkably gentle, a sensitive mensch. Ms. Ryan has the more subdued role, and the two most volatile scenes. She hilariously and loudly fakes an orgasm in a crowded deli, and goes on a truly mournful crying jag when she learns that her former boyfriend is getting married.

Yet in Mr. Reiner's conception, and in Nora Ephron's screenplay, Harry and Sally are defined by their witty, epigrammatic dialogue and so never become more than types. Sally is a journalist who occasionally sits at her home computer and stares into space; Harry's job as a political consultant is even more shadowy. As their best friends, Carrie Fisher and Bruno Kirby are at least meant to be types, and both bring some flair to their roles. She is a marriage-starved woman who totes around an index file of men's names and he is a woman-shy man. Miraculously, these two are also perfect for each other And Mr. Reiner's belief in miracles goes far beyond their comic pairing. Throughout the film, he inserts mock-documentary scenes in which long-married couples face the camera and briefly tell their stories of love at first sight, or of love lost and later found. It is much too blunt a way of pointing to Harry and Sally's future.

Oddly, Mr. Reiner's best, most inventive films - ''The Sure Thing'' and ''This Is Spinal Tap'' - have precisely the sly edge and sardonic tone that ''Harry Met Sally'' needs. His most recent films, ''Stand by Me'' and ''The Princess Bride,'' are softer and more nostalgic. And like a sitcom with too much canned laughter, ''When Harry Met Sally . . .,'' which opens today at the Beekman and other theaters, is a perfectly pleasant Woody Allen wannabe, full of canned romance. DOWN ALLEN'S ALLEY - WHEN HARRY MET SALLY . . . directed by Rob Reiner; screenplay by Nora Ephron; director of photography, Barry Sonnenfeld; film editor, Robert Leighton; music by various composers; production designer, Jane Musky; produced by Mr. Reiner and Andrew Scheinman; released by Castlerock Entertainment. At the Beekman, Second Avenue and 65th Street. Running time: 95 minutes. This film is rated R. Harry Burns...Billy Crystal Sally Albright...Meg Ryan Marie...Carrie Fisher Jess...Bruno Kirby Joe...Steven Ford Alice...Lisa Jane Persky Amanda...Michelle Nicastro