A young woman named Sabrina Fair, the daughter of the chauffeur for Long Island's obscenely wealthy Larrabee family, misspends much of her youth perched in a tree spying on the dashing playboy David Larrabee as he seduces (and presumably abandons, although we never see the ugly part) a succession of comely lovelies. The well-heeled womanizer takes no notice of this plain-Jane peeping Tom, despite the fact that Sabrina develops an adolescent crush on the jaunty Lothario. As she grows older, this crush turns into a fervent desire to become one of David's conquests. David's indifference -- he scarcely knows Sabrina exists -- only fuels her unrequited obsession.
Clearly, Sabrina needs psychiatric help. But this being a movie, she instead goes to Paris for two years for a little finishing. The ugly duckling lands a job with the French edition of Vogue, gets a fashionable haircut, acquires several chic outfits, develops newfound self-confidence, and returns to Long Island a swan -- a swan who still aspires to nothing so much as having her feathers ruffled by David Larrabee. And this time David notices her plenty, as does his workaholic older brother Linus, whose dedication to building the Larrabee fortune rivals his prodigal sibling's efforts to spend it. During Sabrina's absence, David has become engaged to Elizabeth Tyson, whose family is nearly as wealthy as the Larrabees. Elizabeth's father's company has entered into merger negotiations with a firm controlled by the Larrabees. But engagement be damned. David falls head over heels for his chauffeur's daughter; only cold-blooded Linus can save David's marriage plans and rescue the merger.
Like Pretty Woman, Sydney Pollack's Sabrina attempts to create a modern fairy-tale romance out of the pairing of a beautiful woman with no self-esteem and a heartless, megawealthy corporate raider. She's pathetic; he's despicable. What a match! This is not a movie for spoilsports who might question the emotional health of a woman whose goal in life is to add her name to David Larrabee's list of deflowered damsels. Nor will it appeal to budding commies who might be troubled by the film's wholehearted embrace of capitalism and all things materialistic. Sabrina sides unequivocally with the Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous set; the film fawns over the Larrabees' mansions and helicopters and Rolls-Royces and private jets and Gatsbyesque parties. It never questions Sabrina's rationale that fucking a monied schmuck might be a crucial step toward self-actualization. The men of the Kennedy family should love Pollack's film.
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But if you can put aside trifling reservations such as those, Sabrina makes for an enjoyable diversion. These days you take romance where you can find it; never mind a little desperate, neurotic behavior. Look at last spring's big hit While You Were Sleeping -- Sandra Bullock's lonely tollbooth operator has a crush on a shallow but rich and good-looking guy who barely knows she exists (notice a theme here?). She ends up falling for the guy's brother. Of course, in Sleeping the brother is a noble working stiff, not a wealthy corporate raider willing to break Bullock's heart to salvage a deal. Details, details.
While similar to Pretty Woman in many respects (Sabrina's Julia Ormond even bears a slight physical resemblance to Pretty Woman's Julia Roberts), the newer film boasts better acting and a superior script. (The fact that it's a remake of a vintage Billy Wilder flick doesn't hurt in that latter respect.) Sabrina may have been updated to the Nineties, but it still feels like an old-fashioned romantic comedy. You can relax, comfortable in the knowledge that time-honored Hollywood conventions will be observed. No matter how abominably they behave at the outset, both Harrison Ford's Linus and Greg Kinnear's David Larrabee will eventually do the right thing -- their hearts are in the right places.
Both Ford and Kinnear play their parts endearingly. Kinnear, the untested motion picture rookie, smiles rakishly and ingratiatingly while gliding through a role originally intended for Tom Cruise. Ford gives one of his subtlest, cagiest performances in years, and he makes an ideal mouthpiece for the screenplay's steady stream of wry and dry one-liners. As the title character, Julia Ormond, whose acting repertoire mirrors the other Julia's in its reliance upon quivering lips and flared nostrils to convey emotion, doesn't fare as well. But even Meryl Streep would have had difficulty pulling off Sabrina's transition from tree-climbing tomgirl to jaw-dropping sophisticate; at least Ormond looks suitably ravishing when Sabrina returns from Gay Paree. (Of course, this trio pales in comparison to the original Sabrina's Humphrey Bogart-William Holden-Audrey Hepburn lineup. But it could have been worse; the way Hollywood packages things these days, we should thank our lucky stars that the producers didn't go with, for example, Paul Reiser, Woody Harrelson, and Demi Moore.)
Again, this is an old-fashioned film. The idea is for the movie to make up for in droll wit and naive charm what it lacks in plausibility. By comparison The Mary Tyler Moore Show seems like an exercise in jaded cynicism. Realism is not one of Sabrina's strong points. Ormond looks about as credible as an adolescent as Macaulay Culkin would as a retiree. And how is it exactly that a poor servant girl goes to Paris and comes back a mere two years later sporting a wardrobe that Princess Di would envy? You never see the stunned faces of the workers left unemployed as a result of one of Linus Larrabee's takeovers; likewise, Sabrina's over-romanticized Paris doesn't have to contend with modern-day problems such as homelessness, crime, drugs, AIDS, and traffic congestion. If you can accept the French capital as a place where all homely, confused chauffeurs' daughters can go, find themselves, and return home ravishing beauties, then you should have no trouble falling under Sabrina's spell.