Centering on a family torn apart by the accidental death of the mother, "To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday" is a bargain-basement "Ghost," a hybrid of an earnest, inspirational play and a sleek, calculated Lifetime telepic. In a supporting role as the woman's ghost, Michelle Pfeiffer will elevate the visibility of this uplifting-message film, cast with a talented ensemble that nonetheless lacks marquee value.

Centering on a family torn apart by the accidental death of the mother, “To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday” is a bargain-basement “Ghost,” a hybrid of an earnest, inspirational play and a sleek, calculated Lifetime telepic. In a supporting role as the woman’s ghost, 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 Peter Gallagher was doomed forever to play adulterous husbands and bad guys, along comes “Gillian,” in which he portrays a character at the opposite end of the spectrum from his role in “sex, lies, and videotape.”

Gallagher is 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.

Tensions prevail between the confused but loving father and his sensitive, introspective teen daughter, Rachel (Claire Danes), who tries to come to terms with the loss of her mother while building a new life for herself.

Rachel’s date with a handsome beau, Joey (Freddie Prinze Jr.), provides rare comic relief in an otherwise dreary therapeutic movie.

On Gillian’s 37th birthday, the family is having a reunion weekend on Nantucket, presided over by Esther (Kathy Baker), David’s well-meaning but domineering sister-in-law, and Paul (Bruce Altman), her jovial husband. Their imperfect, childless marriage gets re-evaluated 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 only to make the proceedings more suspenseful and to trigger long-overdue confrontations between David and Esther and then between David and his daughter.

The whole point of the slight narrative is to force David to realize that by keeping his fantasy alive he alienates the only real love in his life, his daughter. Kitchen-sink material suffers from severe earnestness and has only one 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 in Patrick Swayze’s part, “To Gillian” works hard to achieve the magical and tender effects of the l990 blockbuster.

But the film is poorly directed by Michael Pressman, and the nocturnal sequences between David and Gillian, which are supposed to be enchantingly romantic, are just as flat as the rest of the pic. Despite outdoor sequences, Pressman, who also directed the l985 stage production, does little to make an interesting movie out of the solemn tale.

Danes proves again that she’s one of the most naturally gifted actresses of her generation.

Looking and sounding a bit uncomfortable, Pfeiffer gives a rare unenthusiastic performance. Gallagher, too, is no more than OK as the loving husband, though some of the fault is in the writing by David E. Kelley, adapting Michael Brady’s play.

The always reliable Baker basically repeats what she’s done in the recent TV series “Picket Fences,” which was created and exec produced by Kelley. (Pressman is also a vet of the series, and Pfeiffer is Kelley’s real-life wife.)

Tech credits are proficient without being striking. Tinged with melancholy, James Horner’s music attempts to create the romantic mood that the narrative fails to ignite.

To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday

Production

A Sony Pictures Entertainment release of a Triumph Films presentation of a Rastar/David E. Kelley production. Produced by Marykay Powell, Kelley. Co-producer, Terry Morse. Directed by Michael Pressman. Screenplay, David E. Kelley, based on the play by Michael Brady.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor), Tim Suhrstedt; editor, William Scharf; music, James Horner; music supervisors, Happy Walters, Pilar McCurry; production design, Linda Pearl; art direction, Michael Atwell; set design, Andrew Menzies, Tim Eckel; set decoration, Linda Pearl; costume design, Deborah L. Scott; sound (Dolby/SDDS), David Kirschner; assistant director, Christine Larson; casting, Lynn Stalmaster. Reviewed at Sony Studios, Culver City, Sept. 26, 1996. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 92 MIN.

With

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