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'America's Prince' a ho-hum production

Sunday, January 12, 2003

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Tell me something I don't know.

That was my reaction after spending an interminable evening watching "America's Prince: The John F. Kennedy Jr. Story," a cheesy adaptation of Christopher Andersen's book, "The Day John Died."

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It provides little new insight into the Kennedy legacy and so-called curse, the once-eligible bachelor's courtship of Daryl Hannah, his relationship with his mother, launch of George magazine, marriage to Carolyn Bessette and premature death in a July 1999 plane crash that also claimed his wife and her sister.

Maybe it's just a little too early to be dramatizing the life and death of someone who is still so vivid in our thoughts and memories. Who cannot summon an image of the Kennedy scion in one of his impeccable suits or his bride with her slender silhouette and long blond hair? Who won't be comparing Jacqueline Bisset's breathy (and distracting) voice to that of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis?

"America's Prince" stars newcomer Kristoffer Polaha, whose credits include appearances on the TV shows "Angel," "Roswell" and "That's Life." From a distance, he bears a resemblance to JFK Jr., although up close you may find yourself staring at his hair and trying to discern if it's real or if it's been artificially sweetened. He has the necessary plumper-than-normal lips, but he doesn't seem to be able to mimic John's magnetism or charismatic coolness.

The movie opens with news of his missing plane, death and burial. It then uses a couple of devices to tell its story: interviews, shot on digital video; 1960s flashbacks, filmed in 16mm black and white; and the bulk of the movie, 35mm color. Director Eric Laneuville says he used the various elements to provide a "visual ID" for viewers, and it's a smart technique.

As the film opens, news that JFK Jr. flunked the bar exam is splashed all over the newspapers. When his mother calls, he flashes back to a college conversation in which she tells him he can be anything he wants -- except for an actor.

"America's Prince" provides the usual greatest hits: People magazine anointing JFK Jr. as the sexiest man alive in 1988; actress Hannah (Tara Chocol) begging John to rescue her after singer Jackson Browne "just lost it ... The doctors told me I'm a lucky girl"; Jackie snubbing Daryl; John and a longtime pal pitching the idea for George magazine; John courting and marrying Carolyn; John's decision to take his cousins to task for their bad-boy behavior; and of course, his fateful unwillingness to give up his love of flying and the sad confluence of events the night he took to the air for the last time.

Let's set aside the allegations of violence concerning Browne, which he has denied and which I have never believed, and the portrayal of Hannah as needy, ditsy and demanding in her own annoying way. One of the biggest problems with "America's Prince" is that it dramatizes discussions no outsiders were privy to -- between duos or threesomes, all of whom are now dead. Who knows what really happened when a dying Jackie and her son shared a park bench or what Carolyn Bessette Kennedy told her sister in a restaurant before they were both killed?

The best performance in "America's Prince" comes from Portia de Rossi as Carolyn. The onetime "Ally McBeal" actress and pitchwoman for hair-care products looks enough like her famous counterpart to pass, and she handles her breezy and heavier scenes with skill; she seems to be acting, not just doing an impersonation.

Made-for-TV movies such as this are an exercise in viewer voyeurism. We're simply seeing actors act out scenes we know or, perhaps, have imagined. In this media-saturated world where the life and death of JFK Jr. were always news, there seems little (new) left to tell.

Barbara Vancheri can be reached at bvancheri@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1632.

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