'Candles on Bay Street,' Cast From A Familiar Mold

Maine event: In
Maine event: In "Candles on Bay Street," Alicia Silverstone rekindles a flame for childhood friend Eion Bailey, right. (Hallmark)
By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 25, 2006

Let's raise our glasses and toast the "Hallmark Hall of Fame" movie "Candles on Bay Street": Here's wax in your eye.

Calling this production "formulaic" doesn't necessarily disparage it; after all, the formula it uses has worked so many times that there's no real shame in trying it again. Unfortunately, the ingredients aren't as potent as they ought to be, and director John Erman fails to stir them up with the kind of blind-faith brio that would make the film -- airing tomorrow night -- a first-rate holiday heartwarmer.

Some of the elements do work -- among them, Alicia Silverstone's performance as Dee Dee, a single mom who returns, after 13 years away, to Balmoral Cove, a small town in Maine. She's come back for a reason not apparent until halfway into the film, although it's the kind of nearly perfect place that would presumably beckon anyone who'd ever lived there.

Her reappearance is good news and bad for Sam, the local veterinarian (Eion Bailey), whose wife, Lydia (Annabeth Gish), figures out fairly quickly that Dee Dee was Sam's "first crush." Dee Dee brings a young son with her, a droopy kid named Trooper (Matthew Knight) who is socially illiterate and unfriendly, although we are clearly supposed to find him adorable.

Kid not cute enough? Cue the puppies! The film is crawling with them, mostly golden retrievers and yellow Labs, or so it appears, and they're surefire scene stealers. But too many of the scenes don't need to be stolen; Gish and Bailey, both disappointingly drab, just give them away. Erman has another solid asset in Polly Bergen, a welcome sight after all these years, but she's absent from the movie for such a long time that you forget she's in it.

Bergen does do a little bit of singing -- but in character as a non-professional, so she can't sound too polished. The beautiful old Carole King song "You've Got a Friend" factors into the second half of the story, and it's enough to jerk a tear or two all by itself, but then when someone's death figures in the plot, what do they drag out but "Amazing Grace," and for the 523rd time. Please, please, can't the song itself be put to rest? It's become the National Anthem of the Dead.

As the film begins, Dee Dee's arrival sets local tongues wagging. There's no real clash between Dee Dee and Lydia, so we don't have to see that corny kind of conflict played out and resolved. Dee Dee opens a candle shop because, she says, "I think candles help us explore the darkness, you know?" Yes, and if everyone lighted just one of them -- well, never mind. You can guess.

Little Trooper starts to come out of his shell when he accompanies the vet on some of his missions of mercy -- giving a pill to a kitty or, more ambitiously, helping with the delivery of a foal, which is shown in graphic but not overly gooey detail. Then everyone goes down to Cee Jay's Tavern, the local hangout, for beer and gossip and a chorus or two of "The Tracks of My Tears."

The film is based on a novel by K.C. McKinnon, who also writes under her real name, Cathie Pelletier. According to the closing credits, it is also based on "real persons and events." But the sad fact of the matter is, they don't come across as real in the script by Jonathan Estrin and Michael Boatman; they come across as having been reshaped and molded like candle wax into Hallmark Hall of Fame action figures.

It's not that the film is boring or utterly lacking in pleasures. Silverstone doesn't seem capable of being uninteresting on the screen, and she gives off as much of a glow as the biggest candle in her shop. Nova Scotia does a beautiful job of pretending to be Maine, and the musical score by old reliable Marvin Hamlisch cradles the production in a warm embrace of its own. But the film falls too far short of even modest goals.

Dee Dee is a person who repeatedly says she wants life to be a "magical" experience. She came to the right town, but she fell in with the wrong crowd.

Candles on Bay Street airs tomorrow night at 9 on Channel 9.

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