I knew how confused they were when I saw the sunglasses. We're on the island of Bora Bora, where Mike (Warren Beatty), a celebrity sportscaster, and Terry (Annette Bening), the singer he has fallen in love with, are roaming through a field of staggering lushness. Imagine grass so green it makes emeralds look pale. Imagine dusky tropical skies, hills curvaceous enough to be called sexy, and a pair of chestnut horses galloping free. Big, fat chords of musical goo flood the soundtrack. Ah, paradise! Ah, love! And do the two lucky ones stop and stare into each other's eyes? Well, not exactly. They can't. They're wearing sunglasses.
Who wears sunglasses in the middle of a big, schmaltzy movie's biggest, schmaltziest surge? Warren and Annette, that's who. It may be just a detail, but it's one of many tellingly chic touches with which the makers of LOVE AFFAIR (Warner Bros., PG-13) have redecorated an old story in an attempt to render it designer-new. In a way, they succeed: By now the decoration is more convincing than the story.
A remake of both 1939's Love Affair and its remake, the 1957 romantic gusher An Affair to Remember (the film that inspired Sleepless in Seattle's moony-eyed fetishization of the Empire State Building), the new, high-glitz Love Affair is an eerie contradiction, a cornball potboiler sprinkled with media-age razzle-dazzle. That may be why it seems at once ingenuous and wispy, over the top and not quite there. There's nothing wrong, of course, with updating a timeless romantic fable. The trouble with Love Affair is that it's a remake of a movie that was lousy to begin with.
All right, I know. I'm a man I just don't get it, right? Still, I suspect that many women (especially younger ones) who saw Sleepless in Seattle and then paid an eager visit to the video store to rent An Affair to Remember may have been taken aback when they discovered that this is the movie Nora Ephron chose to glorify as a cathartic sisterly tearjerk. In An Affair to Remember, Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr fall in love during an ocean voyage and agree to prove their passion by reuniting atop the Empire State Building. But on her way to the fateful meeting, Kerr is hit by a car and paralyzed from the waist down. Grant is stuck waiting for her, his dream dashed, and Kerr is so ashamed of her affliction that she can't bring herself to tell him. The movie is a soppy revel in feminine masochism, a kind of Freudian-Harlequin gothic in which romantic ''fate'' takes the form of punishment: For allowing herself to be drawn into the world of adult love, the heroine is robbed of her sexuality literally broken from the genitals down.
So how does one modernize this weirdly morbid weeper, this drippy painfest? Produced by Beatty, who co-wrote the script with Robert Towne (the director is Glenn Gordon Caron), Love Affair embellishes the old plot with a crust of contemporary clichés. The ocean voyage is now a plane trip that turns into an emergency landing ... and then an ocean voyage. Nosy reporters from the entertainment-media establishment tail Mike's every seductive move. And Mike has a nervously devoted agent and buddy, played by Garry Shandling with all his wheedling, ironic charm.
For a while, these au courant details take on a life of their own, and the picture almost works. Beatty, who floats through the movie in a studly daze, as if he thought he were 27 and not 57, plays the hero as a none-too-subtle gloss on his own choirboy-lothario image. Bening, perky and cynical, does a sexier version of Kerr's reserved smolder. The most convincing scenes are the early ones, in which the two performers playfully reenact the genesis of their own love affair. But there follows a misbegotten sequence in which Mike and Terry receive the benediction of Mike's beloved aunt Ginny played by the 87- year-old Katharine Hepburn, who natters on about ducks, drops the F-word, and, I'm afraid, looks and sounds like Kate Smith impersonating Martin Short impersonating Katharine Hepburn.
Then, in New York, tragedy strikes. What can I say? If An Affair to Remember worked for you, Love Affair may do the same. It resurrects the earlier film's sodden masochism with meticulous fidelity, right down to the awful final scene, which always felt and still feels as if another 20 minutes of movie were yet to come. Then again, what moved viewers in the '50s seems almost luridly manipulative and unconvincing now. Women may be the only ones who ''get'' An Affair to Remember, and perhaps they'll get Love Affair too. But what they're getting the glorification of prim suffering is something they've been trying for too long to get beyond. C