This new “Sabrina” is more fizzle than fizz. Although the revamping of one of Audrey Hepburn’s most enchanting vehicles has its share of diverting scenes and dialogue, especially in the first half, Sydney Pollack and his writers have uncomfortably tilted this Cinderella story of a young woman’s romantic blossoming toward being the tale of a workaholic tycoon’s midlife crisis, to less than scintillating results. Although not likely to be well received critically, enough of the attractive original elements remain to put the film over as a good date movie with particular appeal to women, translating into good B.O. but less than needed to offset the reportedly hefty production nut.
Billy Wilder’s original 1954 film, made simultaneously with the production of Samuel Taylor’s source play on Broadway with Margaret Sullavan and Joseph Cotten in the leading roles, may not rank as one of his very best, but has a witty sparkle and, most crucially, Hepburn at her most incomparable.
Her romantic yearning and zest for life virtually jump off the screen, and while many viewers will no doubt be spurred to rent the original out of curiosity, this interest will work against the new picture, as naysayers’ advance view that no one could replace Hepburn will be amply confirmed.
One’s worst fears are borne out by the opening moments, as the vast Long Island estate of the old-money Larrabee family is described in pithy narration by Sabrina, daughter of the resident chauffeur. Hepburn’s voiceover had an edge of irony and wit as she pointed out the indoor and outdoor swimming pools and number of servants, while that of Julia Ormond, the new Sabrina, is flat, listless and lacking any particular character. Moreover, Wilder’s cutting of the visuals linked up in humorous ways with Sabrina’s commentary, while Pollack’s cutting seems arbitrarily matched with the descriptions, which are almost exactly the same in both films.
Lamentably, this is a taste of things to come, as Ormond’s Sabrina not only doesn’t come close to Hepburn’s, but is singularly colorless, dour and lacking in inner spark. Based on her previous screen appearances, she would seem to have been a reasonable choice, but it doesn’t play out that way in the telling, even if one keeps hoping throughout much of the film that she’ll finally be shaken to life.
Living with her widower dad (John Wood) above the large garage, Sabrina has mooned over the younger Larrabee son, David (Greg Kinnear), since she was a mere babe. A dashing playboy who’s never worked, David throws women away like empty champagne bottles and scarcely notices poor Sabrina, who edges toward total despair.
For her own good, dad sends his daughter to Paris, where she works as a hapless photographer’s assistant for Vogue. Although visually appealing, this virtual travelogue proves particularly weak in all other areas: A semi-romance with the photog (Patrick Bruel) is lame; she remains terribly frumpy-looking, in dorky glasses, uncontrollably long hair and formless clothes, when there are a dozen people around at all times who could easily help her out, and her much-vaunted transformation, to which she continually refers thereafter, is never seen. Nothing of interest seems to happen to her in Paris, her later claims to the contrary.
Then, lo and behold, upon her return to New York, she’s got a snappy, short new haircut and a wardrobe so expensively exquisite that David doesn’t recognize her; although he is now engaged, he is immediately smitten and invites her to a big party that night. His older brother, Linus (Harrison Ford), a confirmed bachelor and all-business type forever on the phone or with nose to his computer , sees who she is at once, and both he and his no-nonsense mother (Nancy Marchand) fear that David’s sudden interest in the newly emerged beautiful butterfly will endanger David’s wedding plans to Elizabeth (Lauren Holly), whose zillionaire father’s business is on the verge of merging with that of the Larrabees.
When David is abruptly sidelined by an embarrassing accident, the grim Linus begins occupying Sabrina’s time, taking her to Martha’s Vineyard on the pretext of a photo shoot and suddenly asking her on dates to divert her attention from his brother. Long climactic stretch has Sabrina falling for the calculating older man’s revelations of vulnerability and emotional need, only to quickly be wised up to his scheme. Finale is happily and unsurprisingly worked out, although rather unnecessarily elaborated from that of the original.
Romantic comedy elements of the opening reels (save the Paris stuff) just get by on the strength of the dialogue, which veers increasingly from the source as the story moves along, as well as some lively playing, notably by Kinnear and Marchand, and the undeniable appeal of the glittering settings and overall story.
Latter half offers few laughs, however, as it shifts to the realm of drama. Pollack and scenarists Barbara Benedek and David Rayfiel may have wanted to dig more deeply than did either Taylor or Wilder into the damaged psyche of Linus, a middle-aged man who’s never stopped to experience la vie en rose, but this fairy tale scarcely proves the most accommodating vehicle for such serious inquiry.
Matters aren’t helped either by Linus’ pinched, manipulative, impossibly recessive personality. If Ford is playing him as a deeply repressed romantic, his soul is so thoroughly buried as to be virtually unreachable.
The view of the rich has a sour, unappetizing ’80s feel to it compared with the almost Mitteleuropean fantasyland quality Wilder bestowed upon the American aristocracy. Despite a few cutting lines, there seems to be approval, and no satire, applied to the wealthy class’s behavior.
Pacing lags in the late going, and Giuseppe Rotunno’s lensing, while sumptuous, seems a bit dark for the occasion. Other tech aspects are lushly pro.