As ideas go, the notion of recasting Howard Hawks' newspaper comedy "His Girl Friday" against the background of a television news operation doesn't sound half bad. But to say that the job director Ted Kotcheff and his cast -- Kathleen Turner, Burt Reynolds and Christopher Reeve -- have done with the idea in "Switching Channels" is half bad wouldn't be doing it justice -- it's bad all the way. And then some.
In 1940, when Hawks turned Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht's "The Front Page," a play about the world of hard-bitten Chicago newspapermen, into a movie, he made one bold alteration: He turned ace reporter Hildy Johnson into a woman. That change -- and the idea of casting Rosalind Russell in the role opposite Cary Grant -- turned out to be one of the single greatest brainstorms in movie history.
But for all the good "Switching Channels" gets out of it, the role could have been played by Dom DeLuise. Working from a script by Jonathan Reynolds, Kotcheff has retained Hawks' basic story line. The television station is a lavish, CNN-like cable outfit called SNN, and Christy (Turner) is its flamboyant anchor/star.
Christy is addicted to the jolt she gets from being out there in the big happenin' world with her crew, dodging sniper bullets and flushing out the big guys. But when Christy goes on vacation she meets Blaine (Reeve), a well-upholstered sporting goods tycoon who sweeps her off her feet and promises her a comfy-cozy life of car pools and kids.
What Blaine promises, in other words, is to treat her as a woman -- probably the only thing that Sully (Reynolds), her ex-husband and the station's news director, has never thought of her as. The beauty of Hawks' changing the character's sex was that it allowed Grant to pretend that he only cared about Russell as a reporter and that his scheming to stop her from leaving was all cooked up for the good of the paper. And the beauty of Grant's performance -- and Russell's -- was that we always knew better.
In "Switching Channels," we know that we're supposed to believe Sully and Chris are crazy about each other, but we never feel it. In fact, we feel as if they've never been introduced, much less married. Turner plays Christy as a snorting, nostril-flaring thoroughbred. But this in itself is hardly what you'd call news. If she didn't play her as a snorting, nostril-flaring thoroughbred -- now that would be news. And there's probably not a star working today who relies more on stale tricks and eyeball-rolling than Reynolds. He acts as if he had his expressions put on in the morning along with his makeup.
As the dweeby, narcissistic Blaine, Reeve is male-model handsome and bland -- just what the role calls for. But he's no fun playing a dullard here (as he has been playing Clark Kent in the "Superman" movies), and he doesn't bring as much panache to the physical comedy as you might expect.
To give the illusion of pace, Kotcheff has his actors scream out their dialogue at each other in a blue streak, and if the lines were memorable we might be angry with the stars for mangling them. As it is, we just feel assaulted and irritated.
The look of the movie also grates on your senses; what the station newsroom resembles most is the shopping floor at K mart, and it's about as appealing to the eye. And yes, we have just recently seen another romantic comedy about people working in television news. But about the only similarity between "Switching Channels" and "Broadcast News" is the milieu. Beyond that, comparisons only serve to emphasize just what the latter might have looked like if, say, the cast of "The Colbys" had played the leads. In fact, bring on the cast of "The Colbys." Heck, for that matter, bring on Dom DeLuise!
Switching Channels, at area theaters, is rated PG-13 and contains some suggestive language.