The comedy/drama "The Cemetery Club" constantly threatens to turn into a full-fledged movie, but never quite transcends its telefilm feeling. It's a pleasant little exercise, but lacks the kind of big-time treatment that made films like "Fried Green Tomatoes" and "Steel Magnolias" accessible to a wide audience. The subject matter limits "Club's" demographic to those older patrons who frequent bargain matinees.

The comedy/drama “The Cemetery Club” constantly threatens to turn into a full-fledged movie, but never quite transcends its telefilm feeling. It’s a pleasant little exercise, but lacks the kind of big-time treatment that made films like “Fried Green Tomatoes” and “Steel Magnolias” accessible to a wide audience. The subject matter limits “Club’s” demographic to those older patrons who frequent bargain matinees. The confines of the small screen will better highlight the film’s virtues.

Adapted by Ivan Menchell from his play, “Club” examines three close friends, Ellen Burstyn, Olympia Dukakis and Diane Ladd, and their experiences with widowhood — the good, the bad and the ugly.

It plays as a fairly accurate, if somewhat sketchy, assessment.

Missing in the transition from stage to screen are nuance, observations and subtleties.

One has only to look at “Scent of a Woman” or “Lorenzo’s Oil” to see how, in some hands, what might be two-dimensional and TV-like can be embellished and expanded to fill the big screen.

For instance, except for the unkempt apartment of Danny Aiello (Burstyn’s romantic interest), the characters’ homes say nothing about who they are.

The characters seem more like visitors to residences in which they’ve supposedly lived for the better part of their lives. And since all three are housewives, that’s not good.

Still, the episodic, rambling quality of the story lifts it above the strictly sitcom level, although some sequences are more polished and dramatically viable than others.

Helmer Bill Duke, like many actors turned director, has empathy for his players, affording them the space to add some flesh to the bony material.

The three actresses, particularly Burstyn, do their darnedest to ground their performances in reality, even in some of the broader scenes. The interplay between Burstyn and Aiello is credible, if a bit unfocused.

Lainie Kazan is saddled with most of the film’s over-the-top business. But she’s full of energy and knows her way around a funny line.

Technical credits are fine. Director of photography Steven Poster makes Pittsburgh look so smart and lush that one wishes the city’s charms had been woven more imaginatively into the plot.

Editing by John Carter is a bit shapeless, but pace doesn’t begin to flag until close to the end.

The Cemetery Club

Production

A Buena Vista release of a Touchstone Pictures presentation. A David Brown-Sophie Hurst-Bonnie Palef production, in association with David Manson. Produced by Brown, Hurst, Palef. Executive producers, Manson, Philip Rose, Howard Hurst. Directed by Bill Duke. Screenplay, Ivan Menchell, based on his play.

Crew

Camera (color), Steven Poster; editor, John Carter; music, Elmer Bernstein; production design, Maher Ahmad; art direction, Nicklas Farrantello; set decoration, Gene Serdena; costume design, Hilary Rosenfeld; sound (Dolby), Willie Burton; assistant director, Warren D. Gray; casting, Terry Liebling; Reviewed at the Avco Cinema Center, L.A. Jan. 28, 1993. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 106 min.

With

Esther Moskowitz - Ellen Burstyn
Doris Silverman - Olympia Dukakis
Lucille Rubin - Diane Ladd
Ben Katz - Danny Aiello
Selma - Lainie Kazan
Paul - Jeff Howell
Jessica - Christina Ricci
John - Bernie Casey
Abe Silverman - Alan Manson
Irving Jacobs - Sam Schwartz
Larry - Wallace Shawn
Ed Bonfigliano - Louis Guss
Theresa - Irma St. Paule
Rene - Alice Eisner
Mel - Allan Pinsker
Al - Hy Anzell
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