Prelude to a Kiss (United States, 1992)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Prelude to a Kiss convinced me that Meg Ryan possesses the acting chops to be in more than light romantic fare - a distinction that her best-known movie at the time (When Harry Met Sally) had not claimed. In fact, her performance in this 1992 production revealed a hitherto unsuspected wellspring of talent that would subsequently be displayed in the likes of When a Man Loves a Woman, Courage Under Fire, and Hurlyburly. Today, Ryan is so well recognized for her participation in romantic comedies that it's easy to forget she's capable of much more, and it was in Prelude to a Kiss where she first evidenced this. (Some would argue for DOA, The Presidio, or The Doors, but I was underwhelmed by her work in each.) Ryan's leading man on this occasion is neither Billy Crystal nor Tom Hanks, but Alec Baldwin - the most accomplished of the Baldwin brothers. Playing a sort of nerdish yuppie, he is very much equal to the task facing him: furnish our entry point into a story that is both deceptively complex and surprisingly simple. Sympathetic and likeable, Baldwin's character becomes our surrogate in director Norman René's slightly off-kilter universe.

Prelude to a Kiss opens with one of the most delightfully romantic half-hours of any recent motion picture. Not only is the aura intoxicating, but it gives us an almost-immediate investment into the main characters and their relationship. René offers a striking portrait of the "psychotic bliss" of love's early stages. Bartender Rita Boyle (Ryan) and publishing executive Peter Hoskins (Baldwin) are attracted to each other from the moment they first meet at a party. Their romance progresses quickly, from dancing in a crowded room to a coy exploration of each other's feelings to unihibited sex, all punctuated by smartly written dialogue (credit Craig Lucas' script, adapted from his Broadway play). Soon they're living together, having deep discussions about the biological necessity for sex and the bleakness of the future in a world that seems perpetually on the brink of self-destruction. It turns out that Rita, the free spirit, is afraid of life, and sees everything as ending in a nuclear holocaust. Eventually, despite their differences on key issues (he wants children; she doesn't), Peter asks Rita to marry him, and she accepts.

Meanwhile, we are briefly introduced to Julius (Sydney Walker), an old man who spends most of his time vegitating in his bedroom. He has been like that since the death of his wife, and, with his health failing, he knows his days are numbered. One morning, he dresses up in his best clothing and walks to the train station. There, he buys a ticket to Lake Forest. The next time we see him, he is wandering into Peter and Rita's wedding, an uninvited but apparently unthreatening interloper.

After the ceremony, Julius approaches Rita and asks to kiss her as a means of congratulations. She agrees, and, when their lips meet, a transference takes place. Suddenly, Rita finds herself in the old man's body while his essence inhabits her form. When Peter and Rita head off on their Jamaican honeymoon, she is literally not the girl he fell in love with. Suddenly, she's a brighter, happier bride who doesn't dread the future and wants children. A longtime insomnia condition vanishes, and she sleeps through the night without interruption. She uses terms of endearment for her husband that he has never before heard, and can't remember key things (like how to make a Long Island Ice Tea). It doesn't take long for Peter to realize that something is wrong, and, once the vacation is over and the couple has returned home, he encounters Julius and realizes where Rita's soul currently resides. It's during that scene, one of the film's most touching, that Baldwin really shines. His mixture of elation, despair, and bewilderment is perfectly balanced.

One can successfully argue that, in a strange way, Prelude to a Kiss follows the traditional pattern of a romance: the characters meet, fall in love, are torn apart by plot complications, then find their way back to each other in the end. The difference here is that the "plot complications" are far from the norm (a category typically populated by ex-boyfriends/girlfriends, betrayal, jealousy, emotional withdrawal, etc.), and give the film a rich subtext that more conventional motion pictures lack. The intelligence of what the characters say also elevates the production. Like most plays-turned-into-movies, this one is a little talky, but that's not much of a problem, because what the characters have to say is absorbing.

One obvious issue addressed by Prelude to a Kiss (and it's provocative, albeit far from original) is the unimportance of physical appearance to the notion of true love. Certainly, we are often attracted to others because of the way they act and look, but, once we get to know them, how significant are such superficial matters? Prelude to a Kiss argues both sides of the issue, and comes up with the answer we would prefer. Peter loves Rita because of who she is, not because of what she looks like. Consequently, his interaction with the old man (when Rita is in that body) shows a boundless tenderness.

Done the wrong way, this could all seem extraordinarily silly and overly sentimental. However, the late film maker Norman René (Longtime Companion, Reckless), who also directed the stage play, finds the precise pitch for a story that is part fantasy, part drama, and all from the heart. He makes the characters so real that it's impossible not to care about what happens to them, and the obvious, awkward contrivances of the plot are reduced to the level of insignificance. He also makes the right choice in not attempting to provide a detailed explanation of how Rita and the old man swap bodies. It's accepted as a mystical fact, and René's decision to let it stand as an unsolved mystery allows us to accept the film as a modern fairy tale. It's an act of fate and will - no more, no less.

The film is filled with many details that strike the exact chord. For example, when she's a woman, Rita has a habit of jumping up to touch a leaf on the lowest branch of a tree outside her apartment. As an old man, she tries this, but her body lacks the athleticism and stamina, so Peter gently offers a helping hand. Then there are all the little personality quirks that differentiate Rita's Rita from the old man's Rita, and which lead Peter to the illogical but inescapable conclusion that someone has stolen his wife's form.

The foundation of Prelude to a Kiss is the strength of the relationship between Peter and Rita, regardless of which body she occupies. It's a credit to both Meg Ryan and Sydney Walker (making his film debut at the age of 71 after establishing the role on Broadway) that we are able to see the character of Rita no matter who is playing the part. The "change of body" plot device is nothing new - in fact, it was an overused form during the '80s - but it's rarely employed as intelligently or effectively as in this motion picture. Here, the writer and director treat matters with a degree of seriousness and dignity, rather than as an opportunity for smarmy, juvenile humor.

While the majority of the screen time is given to Baldwin, Ryan, and Walker - all of whom are effective and credible - there are several key supporting roles. Rita's offbeat parents are portrayed by Ned Beatty and Patty Duke. Kathy Bates, in what amount to little more than a cameo, is the old man's daughter. And Stanley Tucci appears in a few scenes as Taylor, Peter's best friend and co-worker.

I have always considered Prelude to a Kiss to be one of 1992's most underrated motion pictures. It was one of the most original romances to grace the screen that year, yet it was swallowed up in a summer season where audiences weren't interested in intelligent, penetrating dramas that ask provocative questions about substantive issues. The film doesn't have many holes and offers an ending that is satisfying, cathartic, and poignant. In the final analysis, it can be said that Prelude to a Kiss explores the issue of love in a way that will encourage many viewers to examine what the emotion means to them. Too few motion pictures cause us to think and feel this deeply.

Prelude to a Kiss (United States, 1992)

Director: Norman René
Cast: Alec Baldwin, Meg Ryan, Sydney Walker, Kathy Bates, Ned Beatty, Patty Duke
Screenplay: Craig Lucas, based on his play
Cinematography: Stefan Czapsky
Music: Howard Shore
U.S. Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Run Time: 1:45
U.S. Release Date: 1992-07-10
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1