“Three Wishes” is a pallid reworking of the “It’s a Wonderful Life” theme, with a premature hippie filling in for the guardian angel. Well-intentioned but terminally nice, this inspirational feel-good fable dawdles endlessly before building to its heart-tugging climax, by which time all but the most indulgent viewers will have tuned out. Count this vanilla movie as one more entry Savoy will have trouble pushing very far into the marketplace. Pic was world-preemed over the weekend at the Denver Film Festival.
Opening with a fit of dead-end suburban frustration on the part of family man Tom (Michael O’Keefe), tale consists largely of a long flashback to Tom’s youth that serves to restore his faith in life.
One day back in 1955, young Tom (Joseph Mazzello) and his Korean War widow mom Jeanne (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) are tooling through town when her car hits vagrant Jack McCloud (Patrick Swayze). Even though the cops want to haul the mangy guy in, Jeanne defies convention in the conservative, whitebread, subdivided community by seeing that he gets medical attention and then letting him and his pooch stay at her house until his broken leg heals.
In this world of straight-arrow men, Little League and Davy Crockett hats, the bearded Jack is a total weirdo, a reclusive, cryptic wanderer who, as Jeanne says, “is not of this world.” Jeanne, who also has a younger son, Gunny (Seth Mumy), is trying to start a business as a way to support her boys, an idea supported by her earnest suitor Phil (David Marshall Grant).
Elizabeth Anderson’s screenplay seems almost afraid to let anything happen for the longest time, and it’s almost an hour before something of significance takes place. When it does, the balance seems askew: Little Gunny, who has had almost no screen time, is found to have cancer, but the focus stays on Tom, whom Jack transforms from a shrimpy kid no one wants on their team into a baseball wizard through the mystery man’s Zen-like approach to the game.
As soon as Jack and Jeanne finally get together one night, it’s time for wandering Jack to move on. But he leaves his vague form of enlightenment behind, allowing all sorts of miracles to occur in a blaze of fireworks and very determined tear-jerking.
Wearing its Capraesque intentions on its sleeve, “Three Wishes” also errs in spelling out its messages in the most direct terms, usually with overt lines of dialogue so that no one can miss them. There’s nothing wrong with the pro-hope, pro-family sentiments expressed here, only with the obvious, uncomplex ways they are expressed.
Mastrantonio does the best she can to give her determined character some dimension, but the part only allows her to go so far. Swayze’s drifter is so recessive and determined to not reveal anything about himself as to be opaque, while Mazzello is OK as Tom.
Director Martha Coolidge has wholeheartedly thrown herself behind the material, resulting in an unfailingly sincere pic with lots of heart but little rigor or logic. Paring down the slowly developed first half would help a lot, and some of the Little League action goes on too long.
John Vallone’s production design, Shelley Komarov’s costumes, Johnny E. Jensen’s glowing lensing and the well-chosen tract-house locations summon up the time period very effectively. Some fantasy special effects are smooth but seem oddly placed in this otherwise Earthbound tale.