Thanks to a magnetic cast and intelligent adaptation, "Prelude to a Kiss" has made a solid transfer from stage to screen. Back in the 1930s or '40s, this sort of sophisticated, literary-oriented treatment of a simple romantic idea would have been the norm.

Thanks to a magnetic cast and intelligent adaptation, “Prelude to a Kiss” has made a solid transfer from stage to screen. Back in the 1930s or ’40s, this sort of sophisticated, literary-oriented treatment of a simple romantic idea would have been the norm. Today’s general audiences, however, may be put off by the quick-witted talk and mildly confused by the central device, despite its resemblance to “Ghost.” Very appealing leads constitute a B.O. plus, and an audience for this engaging, small-scale fantasy could conceivably be cultivated, particularly among women and urban couples, if Fox puts in the marketing effort. But it would be an uphill struggle.

Craig Lucas’ 1988 fairytale play about commitment and transcendent romantic love enjoyed a nice run on Broadway in 1990 after a limited off-Broadway engagement, which Alec Baldwin toplined. In their second motion picture outing, after “Longtime Companion,” Lucas and his longtime legit director Norman Rene have treated their baby with care and tact, even if the emotional resonance of the piece has been slighted somewhat.

Zippy opening reel nicely conveys the headiness of love’s first stage. Peter (Baldwin) and Rita (Meg Ryan) meet sexily at a party and combust so quickly that they’re in bed before they’ve even had a proper date. Fast talkers who totally connect mentally, emotionally and physically, the two exult in the joy two people can share relishing the realization they are meant for each other.

Although Peter must counter Rita’s spirited brand of fatalism, and jokey apprehensions about marriage occasionally cloud the air, they soon tie the knot at a lovely lakeside ceremony that turns curious with the arrival of a mysterious old man who asks to kiss the bride. Strangely drawn to the oldster, Rita agrees, then scarcely knows what hit her.

Neither does Peter. During their Jamaica honeymoon, old saw about people changing when they get married is given a fresh interpretation, as Rita doesn’t seem at all like her old self.

Naturally, it takes Peter a while to figure out what happened. When he does, Rita flees back to her parents, leaving Peter to track down the old man whose ailing body now contains his wife’s personality, and then to effect a retransference.

Lucas’ overarching theme has to do with the spiritual prevailing over the physical, of the primacy of true love no matter what the temporal obstacles. This profound, oft-expressed notion goes down easily and appealingly in this relatively lightweight context, although its full weight is not felt due to a certain fuzziness, even faintheartedness, in a climactic section.

Peter’s emotional breakthrough comes after having spent nearly a week with the old man. Peter affirms his complete acceptance of Rita in a different shell by kissing him/her.

Whether or not this key scene has been muted in reaction to reported disapproval by young test audiences, Peter’s full, but quite unsexual, kiss of the geezer is shown skittishly, and cut away from immediately. This perhaps reduces the potential for risible reactions among some viewers, but more crucially dilutes the intended emotional catharsis. Last section of the film goes cold as a result.

This is too bad, since Baldwin and Ryan make such a winning pair. Looking great and playing a normal guy whose optimism has prevailed over his troubled past, Baldwin is a romantic lead both men and women can enjoy watching. Cuter-than-cute, almost too adorable for words, Ryan rambunctiously embodies the life force even when playing a basically aimless young woman, and the film suffers during her prolonged absence in the later stages.

Vet stage actor Sydney Walker, who played the part onstage in the Bay Area, hits all the right notes of quizzicality and resignation as the strange old-timer.

Ned Beatty and Patty Duke wring every possible bit of humor and sentiment out of their cutesy assignments as Rita’s parents, while Kathy Bates basically has just one big scene as Walker’s preoccupied daughter. Stanley Tucci and Rocky Carroll score nicely as, respectively, Peter’s best friend and Rita’s bartender buddy.

Work’s theatrical origins remain apparent, in many ways to its credit, as Rene has reconceived it pleasingly, but without expanding it in stupidly cinematic ways.

Gothic character of Rita’s residential block astutely suggests the mood of a dark fairytale, and Stefan Czapsky’s suggestive lensing provides sufficient shadows in Andrew Jackness’ smart production design for portents to inhabit.

Of particular note is the splendid score. Pic’s title is derived from the Duke Ellington standard, and Howard Shore’s original compositions have been combined with more than a dozen tunes of varied vintage to outstanding effect.

Prelude to a Kiss

Production

A 20th Century Fox release of a Gruskoff/Levy production. Produced by Michael Gruskoff, Michael I. Levy. Executive producer, Jennifer Ogden. Co-producers, Craig Lucas, Norman Rene. Directed by Rene. Screenplay, Lucas, based on his play.

Crew

Camera (DuArt color), Stefan Czapsky; editor, Stephen A. Rotter; music, Howard Shore; production design, Andrew Jackness; art direction, W. Steven Graham, Maxine Walters (Jamaica), Ray Kluga (N.Y.); set design, Karen Fletcher; set decoration, Cindy Carr, Sue Raney (N.Y.); costume design, Walker Hicklin; sound (Dolby), Les Lazarowitz, James Sabat (Jamaica); associate producer, Deborah Schindler; assistant directors, Michael Steele, Tony Adler (N.Y.); casting, Jason LaPadura, Natalie Hart. Reviewed at the Avco Cinema, L.A., July 6 , 1992. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 106 min.

With

Peter Hoskins - Alec Baldwin Rita Boyle - Meg Ryan Leah Blier - Kathy Bates Dr. Boyle - Ned Beatty Mrs. Boyle - Patty Duke Old Man - Sydney Walker Jerry Blier - Richard Riehle Taylor - Stanley Tucci Tom - Rocky Carroll
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