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‘Dying Young’

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
June 21, 1991


Joel Schumacher
Julia Roberts;
Campbell Scott;
Vincent D'Onofrio;
Colleen Dewhurst;
David Selby;
Ellen Burstyn
language and intensity of topic

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If "Dying Young," with Julia Roberts, seems familiar, that's because it's basically "Pretty Oncology Nurse." A tear-jerker cum love story, it smacks of her trademark girlishness, all big, moist eyes and eager subservience. Gorgeous and talented though she may be, Roberts appears bent on single-handedly returning womankind to the cinematic dark ages.

Based on a tragic novel by Marti Leimbach, "Dying Young" has been turned into a rather cheery two-way Eliza Doolittle story. Roberts is Hilary, a plebeian Oaklander whose bedside manner brightens the last days -- or are they? -- of a Nob Hill cancer patient, Victor (Campbell Scott). A Klimt fancier, he teaches her about the impressionists and gives her a salary. Frankly, it's hard to say who's sicker.

Scott, who survived his lover in "Longtime Companion," finds a much happier fate awaiting him under nurse Hilary's ever more devoted care. Before she came along, he had been sitting around feeling sorry for himself, which of course he has every right to do under the circumstances. But after falling in love with his spirited caretaker, he gets better -- or does he? -- and the two go off to Mendocino to live idyllically in a rambling Victorian house and perform many shampoo-ad love montages.

Scott's real-life mother, Colleen Dewhurst, is among the earthy and warmhearted locals who welcome them to the tiny community. Everything seems to be going just fine, and then Victor starts sweating heavily and sneaking injections of morphine. Uh-oh! And we find out that the hero, however understandable his reasons, has played Hilary for a chump. She trusted him -- she believed he was cured. And what did he do?

It's a fairly trite tale all in all, and it doesn't help that director Joel Schumacher is squeamish about going for the cheap tears. As weepers go, this one is on the dry side -- even the most lachrymose viewers could dry off with what lint they have on them. The treatment is blase when it means to be reverential, standoffish when it ought to just go ahead and be sentimental.

Victor automatically has our pity even though he practices emotional blackmail. And Scott manages to give him a tortured sexual validity and a sweetness that understandably attract Hilary. Roberts is a lipsome love, but she hasn't really found anything in Hilary that wasn't in her golden-hearted whore. This time she isn't peddling sex, eluding an abusive husband or dying after childbirth, but she is cleaning up vomit ... his vomit. Oh well -- a Pretty Woman's work is never done.

"Dying Young" is rated R for language and intensity of topic.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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