When "Oprah Winfrey Presents," she doesn't mess around. She is no slouch at presenting. Apparently she's no slouch at anything. She's probably not even a slouch at slouching, but who'll ever get a chance to find out?
The thing about TV movies produced by Oprah's company is that while they haven't all been winners, they have all been spiffy-looking productions featuring first-class talent. Winfrey's latest, "Tuesdays With Morrie," stars Jack Lemmon, and the beloved old actor goes at the part of Morrie like a dog with a chew toy. He doesn't just sink his teeth into it, he noshes with glee.
Lemmon is, however, by far the best thing about the film, which is based on a big fat bestseller and airs tomorrow night at 9 on ABC. Mitch Albom, a sportswriter for the Detroit Free Press, wrote the book based on real-life chats with Morrie Schwartz, a particularly memorable professor of Albom's at Brandeis University. Albom renews contact with Schwartz in 1994 after he learns the old man is dying of Lou Gehrig's disease.
He learns it by watching Morrie on ABC's "Nightline," with Ted Koppel interviewing the venerable and sagacious teacher. Knowing he was going to die inspired Morrie to pour out torrents of wisdom and what Koppel calls "lessons in living." Albom is meanwhile living life on the fast track, running around wildly covering sports, trying to further his career and proving unable to commit to his girlfriend, Janine (Wendy Moniz), who is running out of patience.
What Morrie does for Mitch is set him straight about life's priorities. In turn, Albom put Morrie's dying thoughts in a book that has now sold nearly 3 million copies and is still going strong. Why? Americans love schmaltzy uplift, that's why.
Despite the hazards and limitations of the part, Lemmon is pretty wonderful--more than an old pro acting up a storm, he totally inhabits the character of Morrie and does it without using the standard Lemmonisms with which moviegoers are familiar. Hank Azaria, playing Albom, is merely there, or half-there, and his character something of a cliche. Also there are far, far too many shots of him running down hallways with a cell phone at his ear to prove to us how busy he is.
Unfortunately, some of the allegedly brilliant advice given by Morrie in the movie seems less than revelatory. Basically he keeps telling Mitch to stop and smell the roses--you know, drop out of the rat race for a while, think about what really matters, don't sweat the small stuff and it's all small stuff--oops, wrong uplifting bestseller.
"When you know how to die, you know how to live," Morrie lectures Mitch at one point. Oh-kay. He quizzes Mitch: "Are you giving to your community? Are you at peace with yourself?" Later Morrie tells him, "Work, money, ambition--we bury ourselves in these things, but we never stand back and say, 'Is this what I want?' " Wait a minute, Morrie. Some people do.
There are a couple of flashbacks to Morrie's youth, which was lived in poverty and without enough parental affection: "My father was afraid of love." Love is definitely on Morrie's mind and--this may shock you--it turns out to be very important. "Love always wins," Morrie says and, later, "We must love one another or die." But he "loves one another" and he's still dying; what went wrong?
Perhaps it's churlish to argue with sentiments that have apparently inspired a great many people (though God is conspicuous by His absence in most of Morrie's philosophizin'). And perhaps the gospel according to Morrie was much more effectively related in the book than in the film.
The movie never fully clarifies what makes Morrie so mesmerizing to Mitch, or how he helps Mitch clear his head and see the light and all those other good things. You have to take it on the strength of Lemmon's performance--which fortunately is very strong indeed. If "Tuesdays With Morrie" leaves you feeling satisfied and encouraged, that'll probably be 90 percent because of Lemmon and only 10 percent everything else.
There's one non-Lemmony moment, however, that any hard-working journalists watching will treasure perhaps for the rest of their lives--a scene in which Mitch's editor, after yelling at him through the whole film, apologizes to him and says, "I'm sorry, I was wrong."
Okay, maybe it could never happen in real life, but it makes a lovely fantasy.
'A Christmas Carol'
Clammy hambone Patrick Stewart traveled the country for 10 years reading "A Christmas Carol" to audiences and playing all the parts himself. Now Stewart stars in a new cable TV production of the Charles Dickens classic, and you may get the feeling he'd like this to be a one-man show as well. All those other actors keep getting in his way.
Stewart does not seem very enthused about sharing the screen. The director of the film, David Jones, apparently felt obliged to keep the camera on him as much as possible; Stewart is one of the executive producers, too. Considering that the story of Scrooge is partly a treatise on the virtues of generosity, Stewart's dominating approach is more than a tad tacky.
This latest "Christmas Carol," premiering on the shabby TNT cable network tomorrow night at 8, differs from other productions in ways that are not always crowd-pleasing but are probably true to the times in which the story was written. The poverty of Victorian England, for instance, is portrayed more graphically than in most previous films of the story. Indeed, Stewart has probably committed to film the most depressing, least joyous "Christmas Carol" ever made.
Writer Peter Barnes takes a liberty right off the bat. He has the story begin with the funeral of Jacob Marley, business partner of Ebenezer Scrooge. Then we flash forward seven years to a cold Christmas Eve, with Scrooge keeping loyal clerk Bob Cratchit busy at his books well past sundown--about where the story normally begins. Cratchit is nicely played by Richard E. Grant who, true to the more realistic tone of the production, makes Cratchit less simpering than in previous versions.
At home, the Cratchit family includes, of course, Tiny Tim, who walks with a crutch and whose future looks bleak without the medical care he needs. Well, you know all this, don't you? "A Christmas Carol" must be the second-most-told of all Christmas stories, and one of the most enduring pieces of seasonal fiction ever.
Here and there, the filmmakers who made the new version add a touch that seems fresh. When Marley's ghost appears in Scrooge's gloomy apartment, Scrooge's jaw almost falls off, and he has to give it a boost back into place. Later, the Spirit of Christmas Present takes Scrooge on a tour of the world at Christmas, with the special-effects department whipping up a large white tornado to transport them.
About the only recognizable actor playing a ghost is Joel Grey, who in his get-up as the Ghost of Christmas Past looks like a glowing albino hippie. It's a convincingly ethereal vision, however. Grey doesn't have many lines of dialogue, but then nobody besides Stewart does.
The film is so morbidly monochromatic that it almost looks like black and white. The problem is, when Scrooge undergoes his conversion, the movie pretty much stays gray and gloomy-looking. Color does not burst forth. The sense of epiphany is muted, as if Scrooge might return to his mean old ways at any moment. He doesn't even visit the Cratchits on Christmas morning, as in most other films of the story. Instead, he just has dinner with his sotty little fop of a nephew.
This may not be the worst version of "A Christmas Carol" ever made, but it could be the humbuggiest.