THE PACKAGING on my preview copy promises that the romantic comedy " 'Til There Was You" follows "in the hot-renting tradition of 'Sleepless in Seattle' and 'When Harry Met Sally . . . ' " Sure enough, what we have here is the latest attempt at another Boy-Doesn't-Meet-Girl, Boy-Doesn't-Get-Girl-Until-the-Closing-Credits blockbuster.
You will recall that Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan spend 98 percent of "Seattle" at opposite ends of the country. And although Harry meets Sally fairly early on, they don't get horizontal for years.
Now comes "You," which tries to up the ante with a sure-fire gimmick: This time, the two lovers never meet.
Only kidding. Of course Jeanne Tripplehorn and Dylan McDermott eventually come face to face before we learn who the key grip was and that no animals were harmed during the course of filming. In fact, they cross paths many times over the course of the movie and the course of their lives, literally bumping into each other more than once. But they remain strangers for most of the film's 30-year time span, oblivious to the inevitability of their romance.
Think, for just a moment, about that premise, and you will realize why you've probably never heard of this movie until now: because the end of the film is so predictable that it destroys any possibility of suspense. Only an extraterrestrial, and a dense one at that, could watch the first 20 minutes of so of Baby Tripplehorn and Baby McDermott growing into Teen-age Tripplehorn and Teen-age McDermott and not grasp that, several presidential administrations later, they're going to spend their 30s as the happiest couple on earth.
What we get instead of narrative tension is one far-fetched plot complication after another. Space limitations oblige me to spare you the details of their adolescence and college careers, which are necessary in order to fully grasp why sophomoric poet Gwen (Tripplehorn) and pretentious architect Nick (McDermott) would both wind up in the orbit of airheaded, power-mad former child actor Francesca (Sarah Jessica Parker).
This talentless trio are enmeshed in a pointlessly tangled web involving a historically significant apartment complex, a book of memoirs, an aging movie star and some local politicians. (Trust me: It's a bad sign when a romantic comedy incorporates lengthy excerpts from city council meetings.)
McDermott doesn't have much to do, and he handles that assignment splendidly, though at one point during the college years I confused him with a supporting character, which doesn't say much for his on-screen magnetism.
Speaking of the supporting cast, there are many familiar faces doing fine work here, including Michael Tucker, Ken Olin and Nina Foch. Sarah Jessica Parker plays an entertaining composite of Drew Barrymore and various female members of "The Brady Bunch," all of whom should consider lawsuits, given the way they're portrayed here.
Cast in the Meg Ryan role, Tripplehorn seems to be striving for something along the lines of Diane Keaton's Annie Hall as she stammers, weeps and fumbles along, hauling out another neurotic tic with each new scene. The first time she bumps her head on a chair in the trendy restaurant Nick has designed, it's annoying; the fifth time, you start praying for a concussion.
Each collision with the furniture is linked to another run-in with romance, either in the form of Nick or the long series of undesirables Gwen is stuck with before Mr. Right comes along. Last I checked, the Hollywood slang for such chance encounters between future lovebirds was "meeting cute."
If that still holds, allow me to propose that "For Roseanna" is about "dying cute." I can think of no better way to describe the darkly comic tone of this tale about a man's valiant quest to honor his terminally ill wife's wish to be buried beside their infant daughter.
There's only one hitch -- there are only three spaces left in the village cemetery, and they're first come, first served. True, the wealthy landowner next door might consider selling a portion of his property to expand the graveyard, but the creep won't budge.
So Marcello (Jean Reno) does everything in his power to stop anyone else in town from dying before his wife: He directs traffic to prevent wrecks, snatches cigarettes out of people's mouths, even convinces a respirator-bound emphysemic to move to Arizona. All for the love of Roseanna (Mercedes Ruehl), whose other dying wish is that rather than spend eternity as a grieving widower, Marcello shall remarry her sister (Polly Walker), a woman he doesn't particularly like.
Such is life in the quaint Italian village of Travento. But before you conclude that "For Roseanna" is the latest import from the land of "The Bicycle Thief" and "Cinema Paradiso," check that cast list again. Scriptwriter Saul Turteltaub and director Paul Weiland don't sound like natives, either. Not a neo-realist in the bunch.
Nope, what we have here is the Hollywood version of Italy, populated with folks whose sentence constructions are suspiciously reminiscent of the quaint villages of New Jersey. The opening sequence, the funeral of a circus family complete with tightrope walker and mourners in full sad-clown makeup, may well be the most brazen Fellini heist in decades.
After an hour of so of American and generic European actors delivering English dialogue with thick accents, "Roseanna" looks less like an Italian movie than like a television commercial for spaghetti sauce.
But no matter; once the final plot element (a kidnapper released from prison searching for his hidden ransom money) is introduced, everything rolls along with the logic of farce and the emotional depth of a love story. It's an odd combination that doesn't always work, but when it does, the laughter, tears and surprise "Roseanna" elicits are organic rather than merely mechanical.
Which is to say: It's not quite in the hot-renting tradition of "Sleepless in Seattle." But if you're looking for something a little cooler and a lot less predictable, give it a shot.
FOR ROSEANNA 1997, PG-13, 95 minutes, New Line Home Video (in release this week)
'TIL THERE WAS YOU 1997, PG-13, 96 minutes, Paramount Home Video (in release this week.)