Crush 'n' Burn

Here on Earth tromps -- charmlessly -- on Love Story turf

Here on Earth, the new teen romance, should do wonders for the reputation of veteran director Arthur Hiller. Not that Hiller had anything to do with the film, mind you -- which wouldn't do wonders for his rep. No, Hiller is the man who, back in 1970, directed the inexplicably popular Love Story, the film from which Here on Earth is photocopied. And, despite all the swipes that have been taken at that venerable tear-jerker over the past three decades, the sheer awfulness of Here on Earth throws the older film's virtues into bold relief.

Now, "photocopied" is perhaps too strong a word. This isn't another story of a stuffy upper-crust college guy who finds happiness in the arms of a working-class girl only to have her die beautifully of a mysterious disease. No, this is the story of a stuffy upper-crust prep school guy who finds happiness yadda yadda yadda block-copy the rest of the above.

Teen heartthrob Chris Klein plays Kelley Morse, a senior at a snooty prep school in western Massachusetts. One reckless night, Kelley gets into a car race with townie Jasper Arnold (Josh Hartnett). The result is that the local restaurant burns down. Kelley's cold, distant dad is rich enough to pay for all the damage, but the no-nonsense small-town judge insists that Kelley and Jasper, as punishment, spend the summer helping to rebuild the diner. Jasper's family is nice enough to lodge Kelley for the duration -- a kindness that he repays by sulking, being snotty, and, eventually, in the coup de grâce, making goo-goo eyes at Jasper's longtime girlfriend, Sam (Leelee Sobieski, TV's most recent Joan of Arc, looking uncommonly like the young Helen Hunt). Sam's mother, coincidentally, owns the charred eatery.

In the sadly realistic tradition of immature teenagers everywhere, Sam throws over the sweet, loving Jasper for the brooding, unpleasant Kelley, because, hey, who wants to be with a nice guy when you can have a total pill instead?

After a series of "cute" getting-to-know-each-other scenes -- playing pantomime baseball at midnight, running through the woods and generally carrying on in gauzy soft-focus -- Kelley blurts out the traumatic source of his bad disposition. It may be hackneyed, but at least it doesn't involve child molestation for once, which is a refreshing change.

Then the two have time to make love one time before Sam's cancer metastasizes incurably.

Oh, sorry. Did we neglect to mention that Sam has cancer? Well, so do director Mark Piznarski and screenwriter Michael Seitzman up to this point. They drop plenty of vague references to Sam having to quit track because of some problem with her knee, but the reasonable assumption is something like Osgood Slaughter's disease, not cancer of the knee, for crying out loud. Sam manages to die a fresh-faced, beautiful death. She is then seen romping in a pastoral afterlife, leaving Kelley, essentially unchanged, to go off to Princeton according to schedule. Once a pill, always a pill.

At least Love Story had the extra emotional charge of the working out of the hostility between preppy Ollie and his dad. But there's nothing like that here -- no interesting character undercurrents, no subplots or complications. Sam dies because that's the fastest way to jerk tears.

Things are not helped by the performances: Klein is simply a stiff, and Sobieski is neither more nor less Joan of Arc here than she was on TV. Hartnett is the only actor who seems capable of showing even a hint of inner conflict on his face. The score by Andrea Morricone, son of Ennio, is goo, reminiscent of (but inferior to) Georges Delerue's score for the 1989 Summer Story, another vastly superior run-through of the same story.

It would be heartening if the adolescent girls of America turned their backs on this pandering piece of kitsch, but that would be hoping too much. The cynical purveyors of this junk know that shortest route to a pubescent girl's pocket is through her lachrymal glands.

 
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