Midway through "The Bachelor," one of the film's characters reacts to its central dilemma with the not-quite-facetious inquiry, "What is this, 'Brewster's Millions?'"
It's an apt comparison, given that the plot of "The Bachelor" closely resembles the story line of that 1902 novel, which has been the source of at least seven filmed variations. All adhere to the basic premise "young man stands to inherit a fortune if he can quickly fulfill the conditions of a dying relative's will." And sure enough, that's the doddering heart of this movie.
But novice screenwriter Steve Cohen has contemporary statements to make about men and women, British-born director Gary Sinyor posseses some snappy ideas about combining visual and aural comedy, and their version (probably not the last in this string, either) adds enough fresh material to make this an insightful and grandly amusing comedy.
Clean-cut Chris O'Connell plays the heir apparent this time out -- one Jimmie Shannon -- and curly-haired Reneé Zellweger is his girlfriend, Anne, whose affections he loses after a botched proposal of marriage. Jimmie soon learns of his dead uncle's will, in which it's promised that he'll inherit $100 million if he weds within a day. With that paycheck suddenly and maddeningly out of reach, he's stuck for a second-choice bride.
Sinyor and Cohen make two smart choices where this setup is concerned. First, they don't spring it on us right away: We're granted more than half an hour of various meditations on the nature of bachelorhood and matrimony, ruminations that lend weight to the characters. Second, they run through the bride search pretty quickly, presenting the contestants via a delightful assortment of vignettes. As a result, the one-note plot becomes the springboard to more than a mere one-joke movie.
There's added weight in the positively hilarious and deadly relevant scenes that occur when the bachelor finds himself facing hundreds of eager brides, all of them confronting him with the thorny challenge, "What do you want?"
He (and we) have a few moments to consider just what we do want in men or women as the new millennium approaches, and how much of it has to do with pride, money and simple chemistry. It's the sort of defining moment that lifts a film of this stripe far above such similarly formulaic but inferior stories as the recent "Runaway Bride" and "Forces of Nature."
Better to compare this one to the exemplary "Four Weddings and a Funeral." O'Connell and Zellweger can handle everything their roles require. And for good measure, we're granted fine supporting performances from veterans Peter Ustinov, Hal Holbrook and Ed Asner.
Sinyor has worked in English TV, as well as lensing "Stiff Upper Lips," a tribute to/parody of postwar British comedies. He's got a flair for humor; let's hope he indulges it further.
"The Bachelor" makes for a fine date movie: It approaches romantic issues in a manner that probably won't offend men or women, yet never lowers itself to the level of pandering. A Hollywood rarity? You bet.