You don't have to know and love Buster Keaton's inspired 1925 farce "Seven Chances" to dislike the modern remake "The Bachelor," although it certainly doesn't hurt. A remarkably mirthless and inept romantic comedy about a young man who must marry within a day if he's to inherit $ 100 million, new pic is woefully misconceived on virtually every level, as it retains awkward vestiges of its source without at least winking at them or, better yet, coming up with plausible contemporary substitutes. In this box-office year, anything is possible, but likeliest commercial fate is an OK opening spurred by a fun romantic sell followed by rapid falloff based on grim word of mouth.

You don’t have to know and love Buster Keaton’s inspired 1925 farce “Seven Chances” to dislike the modern remake “The Bachelor,” although it certainly doesn’t hurt. A remarkably mirthless and inept romantic comedy about a young man who must marry within a day if he’s to inherit $ 100 million, new pic is woefully misconceived on virtually every level, as it retains awkward vestiges of its source without at least winking at them or, better yet, coming up with plausible contemporary substitutes. In this box-office year, anything is possible, but likeliest commercial fate is an OK opening spurred by a fun romantic sell followed by rapid falloff based on grim word of mouth.

The most memorable sight in Keaton’s zippy comedy was that of dozens, if not hundreds, of prospective brides in hot pursuit of the stone-faced would-be heir through the streets. Action climax of this new version reproduces this image and predictably magnifies it, as fully 1,000 bridal-gowned women race up and down the steep hills of San Francisco in very uncomfortable shoes attempting to get their hands on the most eligible bachelor in town.

But whereas the sequence in the Keaton picture became a hilarious silent movie classic, the current equivalent not only lacks comic invention but leaves a rather sour taste by casting the women as ghastly and grasping harridans quite out of time, place and synch with the contempo context.

Problems start about 90 minutes earlier. Jimmy Shannon (Chris O’Donnell, also aboard as exec producer) is a good-looking but otherwise uninteresting confirmed bachelor who, after three years with g.f. Anne (Renee Zellweger), reaches the relationship crossroads where it’s time to “shit or get off the pot.” When he proposes to Anne by using these very words, she understandably storms off in a huff, which leaves Jimmy in the lurch when the videotaped will of his grandfather (a blustery, American-accented Peter Ustinov) reveals that he will receive 100 very big ones only if he marries by 6:05 p.m. on his 30th birthday.

Naturally, his birthday is the very next day. After his financial adviser (Hal Holbrook) gets off one of scripter Steve Cohen’s few clever lines (“What is this, ‘Brewster’s Millions?’ “), Jimmy rushes off to propose to Anne once again, this time enthusiastically.She’s still not convinced, so Jimmy spends most of the remaining 27 hours tracking down some of his former girlfriends and discovering, to his distress, just how unmercenary they are.

All but one. Hardened heiress Buckley (Brooke Shields), her family fortune fading, is amenable to Jimmy’s enticing business arrangement, but bolts when she learns of the strings attached: They must remain married for 10 years and produce genetically verifiable offspring. With this rejection, Jimmy all but gives up hope, the landslide of willing brides materializing only as the result of a surprise newspaper article on his birthday.

The accumulation of minor lapses, inconsistencies and unimaginative thinking eventually creates evidence of a major creative deficiency.

Why would crafty old Grandpa leave a recorded will specifying that Jimmy must marry by his 30th birthday when he could easily have outlived it?

Why haven’t the characters of Holbrook’s folksy broker, Edward Asner’s bottom-line family attorney, Artie Lange’s tubby best friend and, most of all, James Cromwell’s patient priest, all of whom accompany Jimmy on his rounds, been reconceived in modern terms rather than seeming like holdovers from some middling ’30s screwball comedy?

Why does Jimmy have to be motivated to marry for the money in order to save the jobs of the 200-odd employees of his billiards table company — people we scarcely see and feel nothing for — in what seems like a hangover device from a Depression-era Frank Capra film?

Why does the film pretend that there are passenger trains that run directly from Napa into downtown San Francisco, a conspicuous plot contrivance? (And what did Amtrak offer to have the train in question not only arrive on time, but early?)

And why recycle the old gag of the newspaper headline when significant fun could have been generated by posting news of Jimmy’s predicament on the Internet?

Just as the plot mechanics could have been retrofitted to a far greater extent, so could the characters have been given more interest and dimension. O’Donnell’s Jimmy is as bland as bland can be, and thesp lacks the comic chops to add humor to his bungled proposals to Anne and to his encounters with former flames. Latter are largely confined to single scenes in which the actresses uniformly push toward arch, unattractive caricature, evidently with the approval of director Gary Sinyor (“Stiff Upper Lips,” “Leon the Pig Farmer”).

Similarly, Zellweger comes off much less well here than in her other major films, her sprightly but vulnerable winsomeness being no match for the picture’s crass, simplistic formulations.

Visual package is rather dull and unappealing, while soundtrack is overloaded with pop tune snippets, many of them chosen for their groaningly obvious thematic relevance to the matters at hand. Attribution of the picture’s sources is evasively buried deep in the end credits scroll.

The Bachelor

(ROMANTIC COMEDY)

Production

A New Line Cinema release of a Lloyd Segan Co. production in association with George Street Pictures. Produced by Segan, Bing Howenstein. Executive producers, Michael DeLuca, Chris O'Donnell, Donna Langley. Co-producers, Leon Dudevoir, Stephen Hollocker. Directed by Gary Sinyor. Screenplay, Steve Cohen, based on the play "Seven Chances" by Roi Copper Megrue and the screenplay by Clyde Bruckman, Jean Havez, Joseph Mitchell for the film starring and directed by Buster Keaton.

Crew

Camera (FotoKem color, Deluxe prints), Simon Archer; editor, Robert Reitano; music, David A. Hughes, John Murphy; production designer, Craig Stearns; art director, Randy Moore; set designers, Eric P. Sundahl, Barbara Mesney; set decorator, Ellen Totleben; costume designer, Terry Dresbach; sound (SDDS/Dolby Digital/DTS) , Richard Bryce Goodman; line producer, Gene Levy; assistant director, Richard Graves; casting, Valerie McCaffrey. Reviewed at New Line Cinema screening room, L.A., Nov. 1, 1999. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 101 MIN.

With

Jimmy Shannon ..... Chris O'Donnell Anne..... Renee Zellweger O'Dell ..... Hal Holbrook Priest ..... James Cromwell Marco ..... Artie Lange Gluckman ..... Edward Asner Natalie ..... Marley Shelton Carolyn ..... Sarah Silverman Zoe ..... Stacy Edwards Stacey ..... Rebecca Cross Daphne ..... Jennifer Esposito Monique ..... Katharine Towne Grandad ..... Peter Ustinov Ilana ..... Mariah Carey Buckley ..... Brooke Shields
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