Craig Lucas's prince of a play has been turned into a toad of a movie. The disappointment is rending, since Lucas and director Norman René — collaborators on the gripping AIDS film Longtime Companion — made magic onstage. The story is a modern fable. Peter (Alec Baldwin), a conservative exec, and Rita (Meg Ryan), a socialist bartender, fall in love in Chicago, which cinematographer Stefan Czapsky (Edward Scissorhands) invests with a fairytale glow. At their wedding Rita is kissed by a gate-crashing old man (Sydney Walker), with whom she inexplicably switches souls. Rita's free spirit is trapped inside a codger who is dying of lung cancer. And Peter honeymoons in Jamaica with a bride who behaves like a stranger.
Instead of playing the material for farce, Lucas crafted an incisive romance that made Peter and Rita live up to their vow to love "in sickness and in health." Prelude functions as a poignant allegory of relationships in the AIDS era, when a lover can start deteriorating overnight. The scene in which Peter kisses the old man as a sign of commitment to the person inside the dying shell has a heartpiercing radiance that seemed foolproof until this movie.
René's direction is inexplicably ponderous. Baldwin, superb onstage, still manages a few moments of genuine ardor. But Ryan is hopelessly dim in a role Mary-Louise Parker made incandescent on Broadway. Walker is merely lumpish, never truly haunted as he should be. The play challenges us to make an imaginative leap into the wild blue. The film, however much it flails, stays resolutely earthbound.