CINEMA: Jovial Julia Roberts has an ideal role in a bland caper with Nick Nolte

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Julia Roberts is the oddest of star commodities in Hollywood: a Lamborghini that few people know how to drive. Her soft good looks, easy glamour and megawatt, kilo-tooth smile give her a box-office appeal unique among today's actresses. Yet filmmakers seem blind to these qualities. Roberts so often has to mope and so rarely gets to be her famous radiant self.

Say this, at least and at most, for the jovial new suspense movie I Love Trouble: it knows what to do with its star. Screenwriters Charles Shyer (who also directed) and Nancy Meyers (who also produced) realize that adventure with a comic twist is the most suitable genre for an actress who is no great shakes in the emoting department but has brightness and vulnerability to burn. So they made her character a cub reporter who hasn't figured out how attractive, resourceful or brave she is -- a heroine in the process of becoming. It's a nicely contoured outfit for Roberts to wear to the Hitchcock ball. And Nick Nolte, displaying his dimpled machismo, is a knowing escort.

Nolte plays a Chicago columnist (with something no Chicago newspaperman has: a deep tan). Roberts is his rival on a hot story involving murders, environmental hazards and this summer's obligatory movie thrill, an elevator in jeopardy.

With its semisnazzy repartee and would-be ebullience, I Love Trouble strains for the style of the grand old movies (the Thin Man capers, the Tracy-Hepburn comedies Adam's Rib and Pat and Mike, half a dozen Hitchcocks) from which it borrows plot, dialogue and ambiance. But style is a Hollywood commodity even rarer these days than a pretty woman. Films don't breeze; they wheeze. Directors aren't pastry chefs anymore; they are construction foremen. Watching I Love Trouble, you can see the erection of a new Julia Roberts statue. The monument is eye-catching but bland, and Lord, it must weigh a ton.