"Bill" is a fictional movie about the making of a documentary; the next step would be a documentary about the making of the fictional movie about the making of the documentary. Just as it may sound, there's something debilitatingly secondhand and ersatz about "Bill," a treacly holiday weeper from CBS at 9 tonight on Channel 9.
Mickey Rooney does give a pretty irresistible, shtickless performance as the title character, a retarded man abandoned to institutions at the age of 7 and not released for the next 46 years of his life. A young filmmaker finds him working in a Minneapolis kitchen and sees in him an exploitable subject for a movie. But they soon develop a friendship that goes beyond that of artist and subject.
The filmmaker rather condescendingly admires Bill for his "innocence" and "basic honesty, just like a child." In fact, Bill is made just a trifle too twinklish, and writer Corey Blackman goes overboard when he concocts a speech in which it is speculated that Bill may be lucky he's retarded, since he isn't bothered with all the anxieties and petty concerns that plague most of us in our daily lives. Somebody put a cork in that bleeding heart!
Randy Quaid, an eminently personable and spontaneous young actor, plays the filmmaker, and Largo Woodruff the attractive, assertive woman who marries him in the course of the story. The narrative is an unfortunately spotty account that keeps recruiting new obstacles -- stubborn pigheads, or bureaucratic grouches -- to thwart Bill in his quest for understanding and acceptance.
This is an Alan Landsburg Production, so it crudely uses the sympathetic theme of mental retardation the way Landsburg's last CBS film, "A Long Way Home," crudely used the genuinely promising subject of adopted children who attempt to reunite with far-flung siblings. Landsburg peddles cheap simplistics; his stuff touches certain nerves and emotional reflexes, but it never amounts to anything.
At the end of the picture, we get a brief glimpse of the real Bill, who does not look anything like a Mickey Rooney leprechaun. The verisimilitude of these grainy, hand-held documentary shots makes the preceding two hours look even phonier than they already were; Landsburg, who wants to make things too easy for viewers, also makes them too easy for critics.