NEW YORK — A MAN and woman meet during an ocean cruise. Each is engaged to marry someone else back home, but when you're glamorous enough to be played by a top Hollywood star, it's hard to keep romantic sparks from flying.
After a nostalgic side-trip to visit the man's elderly grandmother, they head for New York and vow to reunite as soon as they've broken off their current entanglements. They'll meet again in a few short months, at the top of the Empire State Building - if they still feel the same way about each other, and if fate doesn't intervene with some nasty surprise. The weeks pass, the important day arrives, and then....
If that sounds familiar, you've probably seen the 1939 romance called ``Love Affair'' or the 1957 remake called ``An Affair to Remember,'' both of which used this story with popular results.
Or maybe you heard characters discussing ``An Affair to Remember'' in last year's comedy ``Sleepless in Seattle,'' where the Meg Ryan character goes misty-eyed whenever she watches the 1957 picture - starring Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr, two of Hollywood's most dependable charmers - in one of its interminable TV showings.
Or maybe you've just seen a coming-attractions trailer for Warren Beatty's new ``Love Affair,'' which marks the third go-round for this unkillable tale. The new version is so faithful to its source material that you'd almost think your multiplex had entered a time warp - whisking you back to an era when stars had conversations instead of gunfights, romance meant lasting love instead of instant sex, and Manhattan looked as homey as the Pacific island where the hero's aging relative lives in her steadfastly old-fashioned world.
The conservatism of the new ``Love Affair'' comes as a mild surprise, considering that a thoroughly modern type like Beatty is producer, cowriter, and star. Following the trend of most contemporary remakes, such as the new adaptation of ``The Browning Version'' that just arrived in theaters, the ``Love Affair'' team might have updated the old yarn in one way or another - perhaps reflecting how male-female relationships have evolved over the years, and how these changes have affected modern society.
As directed by Glenn Gordon Caron from a screenplay by Beatty and Robert Towne, the new picture does have a '90s look, at least in its big-city scenes. It also has a glimmering awareness of contemporary issues - making the Beatty character not just a popular socialite like Grant in the '57 version, for instance, but a full-fledged media star who knows the eyes of the nation are always upon him.
In most respects, though, the filmmakers have opted for the most backward-looking approach possible, serving up their time-tested story with a minimum of new trimmings. Fans of traditional tear-jerkers will adore it. Others will wonder what's happened to the adventurous spirit Beatty possessed in years gone by. If you expected the bold screen artist who produced ``Bonnie and Clyde'' and directed ``Reds'' to meet you at the Empire State Building this year, get ready for a rendezvous with his much duller twin.
This doesn't mean his ``Love Affair'' retread is identical to its predecessors, of course. The lovers meet on an airplane this time, moving to the ocean liner only when an emergency landing strands them far from home. The elderly granny has become an elderly aunt. The action and dialogue are spicy enough at times to earn a PG-13 rating. And two of the most resonant touches in the 1957 version - a scene where the lovers unwittingly take adjoining tables in the ship's restaurant, and a loving gesture Grant bestows on Kerr as she greets her soon-to-be-abandoned fianc have been inexplicably pruned away.
The stars are different, too. Beatty and Annette Bening, known for their chemistry on and off the screen, have a reasonably spunky rapport that keeps their scenes engaging. Garry Shandling livens up the show as a wise-cracking friend. And the great Katharine Hepburn brings every bit as much warmth, dignity, and style to the aging aunt as the similarly legendary Cathleen Nesbitt brought to the granny in 1957. Chloe Webb and Kate Capshaw show their usual professionalism in smaller supporting roles.
Conrad L. Hall did the cinematography, which is consistently pleasing to the eye, and Robert C. Jones is credited with the movie's efficient editing. The only real disappointment among the film's secondary contributions is the music by Ennio Morricone, a towering figure working well below his usual lofty standard.
* ``Love Affair'' has a PG-13 rating. It contains sexually suggestive moments.