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‘Prelude to a Kiss’ (PG-13)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
July 10, 1992

Packed with cheap sentiment and puerile romanticism, "Prelude to a Kiss" oozes sugarcoated comfort as might a drugstore valentine crushed enthusiastically to the recipient's heaving bosom. A faithful adaptation of Craig Lucas's popular play, it proves a feast for love gourmands, especially those with an appetite for body-swapping. The less starry-eyed viewers -- and probably the hard-working leads Meg Ryan and Alec Baldwin -- will remain starved for the comparative profundity of a leaky "Love Boat" rerun.

Initially Ryan and Baldwin are captivating as a couple of blissful lovebirds, Rita and Peter, whose cute courtship begets a quaint wedding ceremony at her parents' suburban Chicago estate. Ned Beatty and Patty Duke are equally engaging as her parents, a doting dentist and his lovably kooky wife who have ably prepped us for a domestic comedy of manners. Visions of "Father of the Bride" with new people virtually dance in our heads.

Giddy expectations are soon dashed, however, when an uninvited, elderly wedding guest (Sydney Walker) happens upon the lovely ceremony. When the bride complies with his request for a kiss, the sky clouds over, the wind kicks up, and they, yes, trade souls -- a situation that puts the bridegroom's recent vows to the test as the newlyweds fly off for their Jamaica honeymoon. Peter begins to wonder if marriage has changed Rita when his new missus, an insomniac who literally hasn't slept since she was 14, falls into a deep, drooly sleep on the flight.

Mr. Potato Head would have put it all together by the time they deplane, but not Peter, who doesn't positively get it till he looks once again into the old man's eyes -- the doorway to the soul and like that. He realizes him is her. Baldwin is believably distraught, but the tired scenario becomes an endurance test as his character finally discovers the swap, idly resolves the dilemma and ultimately proves that he loves Rita for her own true self. Now, as customary in the body-flipping genre ("All of Me," "Vice Versa," "Switch"), we learn many cosmic truths.

Rita, a depressive personality who doesn't want to bring children into this potty called planet Earth, learns that life is like the greatest gift and plans to have children, no doubt destined to become tiny little spokespeople for Michelin tires. The old man's consciousness is raised in an equally convenient fashion. Basically, he learns that one life is plenty for anybody, and he goes gracefully into that good night wearing a happy face button.

Re-creating the role he performed on stage, the theater veteran Walker is decidely a bit creepier than the rest of the cast as the addled, then resigned, old transmogrifier. Ryan isn't quite up to playing an old guy in a young woman's body, portraying her new-found maturity as grindingly, horribly dull. She plays a lot of gin rummy and loses her sex drive.

Director Norman Rene, whose unabashed emotionalism came off as cathartic in "Longtime Companion," falls head over heels for the sticky material. He's as manipulated as the audience, which is expected to choke up at the appropriate moments: Peter telling Rita that he adores her even in the body of an old man with rotting teeth, thinning hair, a persistent wheeze and a corroded liver, for starters. Rene, who also directed the original stage production of "Prelude to a Kiss," may have seen it as another way of addressing loss as in his first film, on AIDS. Alas, his noble aspirations provide about as much comfort as a balloon bouquet at a wake.

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