By Ralph Novak
July 01, 1991 12:00 PM

Julia Roberts, Campbell Scott

It’s really integrity, after all, that means never having to say you’re sorry.

This intelligent tearjerker is inevitably reminiscent of Love Story, the 1970 Ryan O’Neal-Ali MacGraw movie about a young woman who dies of cancer. But Dying Young is braver, tougher, more willing to challenge its audience—and better acted.

Director Joel (Flatliners) Schumacher and first-time writer Richard Friedenberg burden themselves with an ending that seems tacked on. Even Roberts’s and Scott’s acting is less convincing in their final scene. But in spite of that unsatisfying element, this is an upsetting, moving film—not one for the weak of stomach, mind or heart.

Scott, a leukemia patient driven to anguished desperation by the pain and loneliness brought on by chemotherapy treatments, more than fulfills the promise he showed in Longtime Companion. As the woman Scott hires to see him through bouts of disabling sickness, Roberts gives a most human, humane performance, though she could skip the naive-young-woman-in-over-her-head roles for a while. Schumacher shoots much of the film in close-up, without background music. He’s relying on the faces of his two stars to convey the story of pain, fear, confusion, empathy and finally love. And Roberts and Scott know their way around a nuance; they remain sympathetic figures, even though the two actors have obnoxious moments.

They both quietly defuse the pathos of their too-bad-to-be-true situation. Roberts, for instance, brings out the matter-of-factness, not the hysteria, of her line “Do you know what it’s like for me every morning to wake up and look to see if you’re still alive?”

This is mostly a two-character movie, but when Roberts and Scott leave San Francisco for a Mendocino beach house, they do meet Vincent D’Onofrio, as a handyman, and Colleen Dewhurst (Scott’s real-life mother), as owner of a winery. D’Onofrio nicely balances his never-resolved lust for Roberts with basic decency, and the redoubtable Dewhurst overcomes an embarrassing tea leaf—reading scene to create an appealing figure.

The film was adapted from a novel by Marti Leimbach that ended differently. The difference isn’t the problem though. It’s that the movie’s climax seems inconsistent with the characters’ behavior—and the tone of honesty Roberts and Scott have established. The film is most telling when it says, as it does throughout: These are overwhelming, maybe insoluble problems of life, death and identity that can’t be conquered, only dealt with a minute at a time. (R)