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Saturday, Nov. 25, 2000


For aspiring actresses, it's a role to die for

After she turns 30, a woman comes to terms with the realization that from here on, illness is no longer romantic. She can't expect the world to look stricken, or be numbed by sadness at the sight of her coughing her lungs out. It was different in her younger days. Back then, a slight pain in her middle was cause for a boyfriend to come running to her side. Now he slow-motions himself over, gruffly tells her to take two aspirin and returns to the game on TV.

As for the serious, life-threatening diseases, an over-30 woman wasting away on a bed is -- let's be honest here -- several notches less tragic than a teenager in the same predicament. Cinematically speaking, that is.

Which is why every young and upcoming actress should play a doomed, sick heroine at least once in her career. Such opportunities stop coming after a certain age because after that, women on deathbeds are expected to give wheezy pep talks or crack wry jokes that start with "When you get to my age . . . "

So let us be glad for Leelee Sobieski, who landed just such a dying-young role at the tender age of 18. If you don't know Leelee, this is your chance to witness her first lead part, a long-haired, dreamy-eyed creature for whom the term "maiden" works better than mere "girl." She's the kind of personage that a fresh-faced guy would immediately take home for Sunday lunch ("Mom, you'll love her, I swear."), the kind that makes Mom speechless with gratitude and wipe happy tears with her apron hem.

Leelee is the girl of everyone's dreams, the perfect human amalgam of music and ballet lessons, skiing in winter, summers in Europe, French conversational skills and looks that seem to have been digitally scanned off the lid of a biscuit tin. Sigh.

"Here on Earth" is the name of Leelee's movie, touted by distributors as "Love Story 2000." She plays Samantha, a sweet, unassuming maiden living in a sweet, wish-you-were-here New England town. Samantha was a track star and honor student, but a sudden illness has prevented her from leaving for Boston University. So she waitresses at Mable's Table, the local teenage hangout while keeping company with childhood sweetheart Jasper (Josh Hartnett). But deep in her heart lies the awareness that this "isn't really love."

Then one night Kelley (Chris Klein), a preppy rich boy from the nearby private school, walks in and changes Samantha's life. Immediately seeing a rival, Jasper challenges him to a race, he in a beat-up Chevy and Kelley in his brand new Mercedes. They wind up crashing into and destroying Mable's Table. The pair are sentenced to rebuilding the cafe as part of community service and Kelley is forced to remain in town over the summer.

Samantha wastes no time getting acquainted with Kelley, who is at first wary, then totally smitten. They go for long walks and recite Robert Frost poems to each other. Jasper is incensed, and moves to split the happy couple. But when Samantha is diagnosed with cancer, he abandons his plan and decides he must simply make her happy, at least for the little remaining time she has.

The combination of Chris Klein who, if he ever quits acting, should become the P.R. exec of a soap manufacturer (he's that smooth and squeaky clean) and Leelee Sobieski is perhaps overdoing the visual effect. In fact, in some scenes I found myself fantasizing about putting Ernest Borgnine or Kathy Bates in the same frame with the shining couple, just to cut the dazzle factor and bring things a bit closer to reality.

But then reality has no place in "Here on Earth," which should be renamed "Here in the Movies." Samantha may be a cancer patient but apart from a bandaged leg, there is no evidence that anything is remotely wrong -- she remains lovely and angelic before making a graceful exit. Kelley is faithful and loving, Jasper is devoted, everyone in town brims with goodwill. Would teenagers get a kick out of this? Probably not. It's only when you've turned into a hardened and unraveling-at-the-edges adult that you can fully appreciate such fairyland frolics.

This is the feature debut of director Mark Piznarski, long noted for his work on "NYPD Blue." "Here on Earth" feels like TV -- fast paced, thin plot, a lotta beautiful people being beautiful -- but Piznarski obviously knows how to control the audience: make 'em weep here, make 'em smile there, and orchestrate a flood of tears at the very end. Bring two hankies and prepare to embarrass yourself.

"Here on Earth" is playing at Yurakucho Subaru-za.

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