"Just the Way You Are" is a sloppy, mawkish romance about transcending our limitations. Susan Berlanger (Kristy McNichol) is a flutist who, since a childhood bout with viral encephalitis, has had to wear a brace on one leg. So she convinces a doctor to put a phony cast on the leg and jets off to the French Alps. Here, with the lounges filled with ski injuries, she can be "just like everyone else."
Susan falls in love with a photographer (Michael Ontkean), but she worries that he'll find out about her deep, dark secret. Those worries are increased when her French roomie rejects a dashing ski company heir when she discovers that he only has one leg.
Susan's handicap is only thrown in so that "Just the Way You Are" can make its sappy point: The handicapped don't have a problem, but people who are bugged by the problems of the handicapped do. It's hard to tell what all the fuss is about. Susan is a world-class musician, and from the beginning of the film men throw themselves at her (including a guy she meets in a bar, the answering service employe who takes her calls, a stockbroker and a slalom champion). Who really cares that she wears a leg brace?
Such flimsy stuff might be saved by an elegant script, but screenwriter Allan Burns has filled "Just the Way You Are" with adolescent double entendres (the ski champion "had a little trouble coming out of the starting gate," Susan chuckles) and dime-store moralism: "You take what you can get," the roommate says, and Susan nods solemnly, as if the Wisdom of the Ages has been bequeathed to her. And director Edouard Molinaro has a gummy, soft-focus camera that accomplishes the unimaginable feat of making the Alps look ordinary.
The movie is a star vehicle for McNichol, who chatters her lines as if someone were holding a gun to her head; with her small teeth locked in a permanent grin, she looks like a shrunken head stolen from Kurtz's camp in "Apocalypse Now." And Ontkean gives a smug, preening performance as her beloved.
Susan's plight is made to stand for all humanity's imperfections, from small breasts to homosexuality; "Just the Way You Are" is a pamphlet for good-natured tolerance. But it's hard to find sympathy for filmmakers this relentlessly dumb. "Just the Way You Are," at area theaters, is rated PG, but contains brief nudity and sexual themes.