Not much happens in "One Special Night," but not a lot has to, because what does happen happens to Julie Andrews and James Garner. The CBS film reunites the captivating co-stars of "The Americanization of Emily" and "Victor/Victoria" in a bittersweet romance about strangers who meet on Thanksgiving Day.
Garner and Andrews could play these roles in their sleep. But they don't.
In the film, tomorrow night at 9 on Channel 9, Andrews plays Catherine Howard, a pediatric specialist whose husband died of cancer a year earlier. She still visits the hospice where he spent his final weeks, sitting in his empty room to bring memories alive. At the same facility, the wife of local businessman Robert Woodward (Garner) is lost in the endless maze of Alzheimer's and appears irretrievable.
Although they all live in a fairly small town, Catherine Howard and Bob Woodward (no relation to the reporter, apparently) have never met. Indeed, they just keep missing each other in the earliest scenes of the film. But when Woodward realizes he's stranded after visiting his wife, and snow is falling heavily outside, he sheepishly appeals to Howard for a ride home.
Actually, as it turns out, he doesn't appeal to her, nor she to him, at least initially. They bicker about her car (a sporty Jaguar not fit for heavy snow), her driving, and even, for some strange reason, about singer Sarah Vaughan. The car gets stuck in a snowbank, and what could be a grisly tragedy--and a very short film--is averted when the couple find an abandoned cabin nearby and break in.
Before that happens, by the way, they both try to use their cell phones and naturally neither phone works. Cell phones are designed to work any time except when you really, really, really need them. Then, forget about it. You're back in the 1800s again.
The cabin has no power, the phone lines are down, but there's gas for heating water and a working fireplace. It won't take a clairvoyant to predict what will ensue: that these two seemingly misfitted strangers will spend the night together in the cabin, not necessarily in the same bed, and learn things about each other that lead to changes of mind and changes of heart.
Writer Nancey Silvers and director Roger Young intercut scenes in the cabin, where resistance melts amusingly, with scenes at Woodward's home, where relatives worry. One daughter is seven months pregnant and the other separated from her husband, who drops by anyway for the holiday. Their quarrels are not nearly as intriguing as those between Garner and Andrews, and so when the illustrious co-stars leave the screen, much of the film's charm and energy leaves with them.
But the two story lines do a neat crisscross at the last moment and the tone is always kept tart enough so as to keep "One Special Night" from seeming sudsy or criminally cute. Andrews, still beautiful, still able to survive the closest of close-ups, and Garner, still handsome, are ageless and ingratiating--even when Silvers goes too far and has Woodward growl in exasperation, "If we don't die, I'm gonna kill her." That's early in their relationship, but it's still a line that doesn't belong in the film.
One plot turn is reminiscent of a key scene in "An Affair to Remember," the Cary Grant-Deborah Kerr romantic classic that's so well loved, Nora Ephron made a whole movie ("Sleepless in Seattle") in celebration of it. We won't spill the beans--or in this case, the chocolate-chip pancakes--and it's a little implausible when it happens, but even so, it sets up the characters for a reunion that's worth its weight in pancakes, chocolate-chip or otherwise.
For good measure, we also get to hear Vaughan's recording of "Tenderly" on the soundtrack, accompanying a deftly done winter montage. Writer Silvers knows that everything doesn't have to be imparted in dialogue, and some of the film's best moments occur when nobody says a word.
Though perhaps not officially a holiday heart-warmer--no angels, Santas or "miracles"--"One Special Night" is bound to warm whatever hearts come near it. The two best reasons for that are obvious: The stars of this movie really are stars, and in ways that fewer and fewer stars seem to be.
CAPTION: Cold fusion: Julie Andrews and James Garner in CBS's "One Special Night."