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To Gillian On Her 37th Birthday  

Starring: Peter Gallagher, Claire Danes, Kathy Baker, Bruce Altman, Wendy Crewson, Laurie Fortier, Michelle Pfeiffer Directed by: Michael Pressman

widower has visions of his deceased wife on the beaches of Nantucket. But these are not ordinary "visions" - he doesn't just see her; they talk about the "good ol' days", and he even frolics with her every night outside his beach house. It's his way of keeping her spirit alive, I guess. Meanwhile, his daughter, also grieving the loss of her mother, feels more and more isolated from her father. She is unable to come to terms with her mother's death, mainly because she cannot communicate with her father regarding the subject. He has figured out a way to keep his wife "alive", while his daughter is having a hard time letting her mother go. The father is named David, and is played by Peter Gallagher. The daughter is named Rachel, and is played by Claire Danes; and if "To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday" had simply been about these two characters, it really could have amounted to something special. Unfortunately, the movie also introduces us to several other characters and subplots, and ends up getting too bogged down in it's own desire to be about something of monumental importance.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with a film wanting to be about something important, but the flaw here is that the filmmakers treat their premise as though it were some sort of panel discussion or controversial debate topic. When two of the characters get into a serious debate over the ethics (that's right, the ethics) of seeing a vision of one's deceased wife out on the beach, I waited for one of the participants to crack a joke, so I would know for sure that the filmmakers weren't taking this material THAT seriously. (To my chagrin, neither one did.)

The story centers on the 2nd anniversary of Gillian Lewis' (Michelle Pfeiffer) death. That weekend, David's sister-in-law, Esther (Kathy Baker), and her husband, Paul (Bruce Altman) have decided to fix him up with a close friend (Wendy Crewson). When David finds out about it, he is not at all happy - he is having too much fun with his wife's ghost on the beach every night. When Esther finds out about David's "visions", she threatens to take his daughter away to live with her. We also get subplots involving Paul and Esther's flailing marriage, Paul's flirtatious behavior with Rachel's best friend (Laurie Fortier), and Rachel's first romantic relationship, none of which really go anywhere.

The script, based on the stage play, was written by David E. Kelley, the creator of T.V.'s "Picket Fences". It seems like he was trying for half / slice-of-life drama and half / morality play. The end result doesn't really work for two reasons: First, when you try to combine "slice-of-life" with a moral, you run the risk of your characters losing their credibility and instead, having their behavior support the "point" or "moral" you are trying to get across. (That doesn't always happen. But here, it does.) And second, what is the "moral" of this situation, anyway? I realize the movie is about letting go of a loved one you've lost, but I still don't see where a "moral" comes into play here. Yet the film isn't shy about playing up the "morality play" angle. It shamelessly tries to make a debatable issue out of grief, and it's just plain silly to watch.

What really derails the film are the characters of Paul and Esther. Both Bruce Altman and Kathy Baker are solid actors, but they are playing characters that just don't feel real. Esther works as a therapist, but in all honesty, she's a pretty awful one. Anyone who threatens to go to court to permanently tear a family apart, then has the audacity to believe her actions are therapeutic is clearly off her rocker. Bruce Altman's character exists mainly to spout off jokes and one-liners, some of which are funny, but none of which really fit in with the tone the film appears to be trying to set. There are only two performances that really shine, in my opinion. One is from the incredibly talented Claire Danes, who has graduated from television (the underrated "My So-Called Life") into feature films ("How To Make an American Quilt", "Home for the Holidays"). She's terrific as Rachel, the daughter fighting to come to terms with what is essentially the loss of both parents - one to a boating accident, the other cut off from being there for her emotionally. The only other performance I enjoyed was that of Wendy ("The Doctor", "The Good Son") Crewson, as Kevin, the "blind date". In one scene, David asks her opinion on his inability to let go of his wife, to which she replies: "Well, she was beautiful, exotic, and she died very young. I wonder if perhaps you are making her into more than what she really was." I don't know if that statement is at all accurate, or if it has anything to do with the film, but it's a terrific observation. Her character should have been given more screen time.

I'm not sure if the filmmakers were intent on remaining faithful to the stage play upon which this story is based, (although in all honesty, I don't think too many people would have noticed if they had strayed far from the original story line. After all, I don't think the play is that widely known), but I wonder why David E. Kelley and director Michael Pressman didn't allow the story to simply be about the characters of David and Rachel. That would have made a much more thoughtful film, in my opinion. The most annoying character is Esther, yet the filmmakers seem to accept her "perspective" of the situation as the "correct" perspective, and that truly baffles me. The movie appears to say to those who are grieving: "Quit your damn whining and crying! Shut up, suck it up, and take it like a man, for Pete's sake!" - which is a bit odd to me, considering that this is a movie hoping to tug at the heartstrings of it's audience.

Copyright 2001 Michael Brendan McLarney Critically Ill

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