To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday

Romantic Drama color

Centering on a young family haunted and torn apart by the accidental death of the wife-mother, To Gillian on her 37th Birthday is a bargain basement Ghost, a hybrid of the earnest nature of an inspirational play and the sleek calculation of a Lifetime TV movie. In a supporting role of the wife's ghost, the beautiful Michelle Pfeiffer will elevate the visibility of this uplifting message film, cast with a talented ensemble that nonetheless lacks marquee value. Triumph should expect a modest reaction from mostly female viewers, with better results from pic's more natural habitat, the video bin.

Just when you thought that Peter Gallagher was doomed forever to play adulterous husbands and bad guys, comes To Gillian, in which he plays a role that stands at the opposite end of the spectrum from sex, lies and videotape, the l989 movie that put him on the map. Gallagher is cast as David Lewis, a young widower and devoted father who simply–and most disturbingly–refuses to accept the fact that his gorgeous wife, Gillian (Pfeiffer), died two years ago in a boat accident. “What's wrong with marrying for life” David says, insisting on keeping Gillian alive not only in his heart, but by actually having nightly rendezvous with her on the beach.

Family tensions prevail between the confused but undoubtedly loving father and his sensitive, introspective teenage daughter, Rachel (Claire Danes), who tries to come to terms with the loss of her mother and at the same time build a new life for herself. Rachel's date with a handsome beau, Joey (Freddie Prinze, Jr.), provides one of the few comic reliefs in an otherwise dreary therapeutic movie.

At Gillian's 37th birthday, the family is having a reunion weekend at Nantucket, presided over by Esther (Kathy Baker), David's well-meaning but overpowering sister-in-law, and Paul (Bruce Altman), her jovial husband. Their own imperfect, childless marriage gets examined and reevaluated as a result of David's emotional crisis. A rather banal melodramatic device, Esther's threat to go to court and take control of Rachel “for her own good,” is introduced just in order to make the proceedings more suspensefully dramatic–and also trigger long overdue confrontations, first between David and Esther and then between David and his daughter.

In the manner of a well-constructed stage play, David plays a “blind” man who needs to regain a new consciousness. The whole point of the extremely slight narrative is to force David to realize that by keeping his fantasy alive, he actually alienates the only real love in his life, his daughter. Kitchen sink material suffers from severe earnestness and basically one simple plot point: When will David finally let go of his wife.

Reversing the genders in Ghost, with Gallagher playing the Demi Moore role and Pfeiffer the Patrick Swayze, To Gillian works extraneously hard to achieve the magical and tender effects of the l990 blockbuster. However, the film is poorly directed and the nocturnal sequences between David and Gillian, which are supposed to be enchantingly romantic, are just as flat as the rest of the TV-like pic. Indeed, despite outdoor sequences, helmer Michael Pressman, who also directed the l985 stage production, does very little to make an interesting movie out of the solemn tale.

Looking and sounding a bit uncomfortable, Pfeiffer gives a rare unenthusiastic performance in an otherwise brilliant acting career. Gallagher is also no more than O.K. as the loving husband, though some of the fault is in the writing. The always reliable Baker basically repeats what she's done in her popular TV show, “Picket Fences,” and Danes proves again that she's one of the most naturally gifted actresses of her generation.

Tech credits are proficient without being striking. Tinged with romance and melancholy, James Horner's swollen music attempts to create the emotionally romantic mood that the narrative otherwise fails to ignite.

A Triumph release of a Rastar/David E. Kelley production. Produced by Marykay Powell and David E. Kelley. Co-producer, Terry Morse. Directed by Michael Pressman. Screenplay, Kelley, based on Michael Brady's stage play. Camera (Technicolor), Tim Suhrstedt; editor, William Scharf; music, James Horner; music supervisors, Happy Walters and Pilar McCurry; production design, Linda Pearl; costume design, Deborah L. Scott; sound (Dolby), David Kirschner. Reviewed at a Sony screening room, L.A., Sep. 26, 1996. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 92 min.

Cast

David Lewis…Peter Gallagher
Rachel………..Claire Danes
Esther…………Kathy Baker
Paul………….Bruce Altman
Kevin………..Wendy Crewson
Cindy……….Laurie Fortier
Joey……..Freddie Prinze Jr.
Gillian…..Michelle Pfeiffer