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'Saving Milly': An Aloof Treatment Of a Family's Loss

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 12, 2005; Page C01

No doubt Morton Kondracke poured his heart into "Saving Milly: Love, Politics, and Parkinson's Disease," a book about the long, lingering illness and eventual tragic death of his wife, Millicent. But as translated into a CBS movie, "Saving Milly," the story becomes strangely dry and emotionless, even when the symptoms worsen and the heroine struggles bravely to survive -- standard cues, in this kind of film, for the audience to haul out the hankies.

The movie, at 9 tomorrow night on Channel 9, stars Madeleine Stowe as the flinty and defiant Milly and Bruce Greenwood, outfitted with the proper pair of oversize glasses, looking and behaving something like the Kondracke known to TV viewers for his appearances -- increasingly bland and conservative, as it happens -- on political chat fests. The film is told in flashbacks as Kondracke addresses some sort of (very patient) committee and tells the story of the romance that began in Chicago in 1966, when Milly Martinez was a campus activist and Morton a cub reporter for the Sun-Times.

Bruce Greenwood, Kylee Dubois, Jessica Lowndes and Madeleine Stowe play the Kondracke family in "Saving Milly." (Shane Harvey -- Cbs)

Instead of getting us to fall in love with Stowe's Milly, writer Jeff Arch and director Dan Curtis rely on reaction shots of a devoted, moonstruck, utterly ga-ga Kondracke staring and gaping at her in rapt adoration. He seems to be suffering a brain freeze from a Slurpee as much as falling madly in love. It isn't all that madly, though, because just as the romance heats up to the proverbial hot-and-heavy, Kondracke leaves Chicago for a job at the Sun-Times's Washington bureau, seeming not that unhappy when Milly doesn't come along.

Stowe has a difficult assignment that she, frankly, fails to complete: Give us another kinda-kooky, brash-and-bossy independent female who is nevertheless irresistibly adorable. Instead, Milly too often comes off as cranky and self-absorbed. Together Mort and Milly are the kind of couple that seems, for some reason, especially common in Washington: Colorful, uninhibited, free-spirited woman marries plain, drab, bureaucratic blob. One of the ultimate examples was Martha Mitchell and her dreary sack of potatoes, John.

But the two lovebirds in "Milly" don't quite gravitate to the outward extremes. When they meet, she is up to her eyelashes in causes at the small college, leading protests against the draft and standing up to Chicago's goon cops, yet still looking like a model. Narrating the tale, Greenwood as Kondracke observes wistfully, "I was sitting on the sidelines of life, while Milly, as always, was right in the middle of it."

They keep taking walks in the rain, which means they'll tie the knot for sure, and the movie adheres to the "Love Story" formula even to coming up with its own attempt at a "love means never having to say you're sorry" motto. "Loving someone isn't enough if you don't believe in them," it is said. Unfortunately the line continues, "and if you believe in someone, then you don't give up."

When stricken with Parkinson's, Milly laments that if only a celebrity would come forward to talk about being afflicted with the disease, maybe funding for research would increase. Obligingly enough, Michael J. Fox reveals to the world that he has Parkinson's in 1998, and Fox himself appears at the very end of the film to deliver, effectively, a few inspirational words.

As for "refusing to give up," even determined viewers, unless they are personally acquainted with the subjects of the film, will have a hard time adhering to that goal.

In teeny type on its Web site, CBS makes this acknowledgment: " 'Saving Milly' marks the first CBS Television movie that is co-produced by Magna Global Entertainment (MGE). Johnson & Johnson, Kellogg Company, Pfizer Consumer Healthcare, and Unilever, proud members of the Family Friendly Programming Forum, are participating sponsors of the movie."

Huh? It's all pretty complicated, but the presence of Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer and Unilever would help explain why the film contains no substantive criticism of the American health care system, even though it's considered an outright disaster in some quarters, and instead portrays it as humming along smoothly. The lovey-doveyness extends beyond the characters to the drug companies helping to foot the bill.

Saving Milly (two hours) will be shown at 9 p.m. tomorrow on Channel 9.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company