Watching Robert De Niro and Meryl Streep acting together for the first time since "The Deer Hunter," you feel like a matchmaker who has finally gotten his two best friends together. But as any matchmaker knows, these things never work, and "Falling in Love" is no exception. Can contemporary romance be this flat?

Frank (De Niro) is an architect and a solid family man; Molly (Streep) is a commercial artist and a solid family woman. Christmas shopping in a Fifth Avenue bookstore, they collide and knock down each other's packages, try to help each other and knock down some more packages, exchange words of embarrassment, and knock down some more packages. When they wish each other holiday greetings in the shy, hollow voices of teen-agers at a dance, you know that Something Has Passed Between Them.

This is what is known in Hollywood as a "cute meet"; "Falling in Love" evokes a Timex ad, an endurance test to see how many cute meets a movie can stand and keep on ticking. Frank and Molly meet again on the commuter train to Manhattan. And meet again. And again. They have lunch and talk about their families (he has two kids, she had a stillborn child). They can't stand to be apart from each other. It's not that anything's wrong with their marriages (although that stillborn child must mean something) -- in fact, they both hate the idea of "cheating," and agonize over it with their buddies (Harvey Keitel and Dianne Wiest, respectively). Rather, they're captured by love, which sweeps them along as inexorably as the train they ride together.

Or something like that.

Ulu Grosbard directs with the pace of a burial march. Scolded for the portentous silences he ladled onto "True Confessions," he's tried to speed things up here with a dose of commuter's frenzy (these people are always rushing to make a train), and there are lots of traveling shots, as people walk briskly through their conversations. You could lose 10 pounds just watching this movie.

Grosbard's camera is a sadistic bully sitting on his actors in excruciatingly long takes. De Niro lets it slide off his back -- rehashing his shtick from "Taxi Driver" and "Raging Bull," he's cheerfully uninvolved. Streep tries harder -- boy, does she try harder. She glances down, glances off camera, hooks an eyebrow, laughs uncomfortably, plays with her nose, but the close-up just won't go away. It's odd that Grosbard is known as an actor's director, because no actor can take this kind of relentless pressure -- you get Streep's whole performance, outtakes and all. It has the feel of a big screen version of "Foul-Ups, Bleeps and Blunders."

Still, Grosbard's tundra of silence is almost preferable to Michael Cristofer's script. To make his characters run from unhappy marriages would be a cliche', so out it goes -- we get no sense at all of what their marriages are like. If they were to confide in each other, that would be a cliche; that goes, too -- their stunningly banal conversations offer no sense of why they love each other. Maybe it's just sexual, but that would be another cliche' -- so they never do The Naughty Thing. Cristofer's idea of minimalism is to avoid writing a script altogether.

Although "Falling in Love" bears more than a passing resemblance to "Brief Encounter," Cristofer has claimed that his mumbling, inarticulate screenplay replicates a romantic experience of his own. We've seen method acting before, but this is something new: method screenwriting.

"Falling in Love," opening today at area theaters, is rated PG-13 for mature themes.