If you can believe such casting as Sam Shepard playing a kind clothing store owner and Diane Keaton as a seamstress, you may enjoy the schmaltzy, old-fashioned meller “The Only Thrill” (aka “Tennessee Valley”), a love story spanning three decades. Earnest and basically drab, Peter Masterson’s small-town yarn belongs with the solemn and heartfelt teleplays that cabler Lifetime specializes in. It’s doubtful that the marquee value of the two stars will be sufficient to place the film in theaters.
Texas-born director (and actor) Masterson, whose best film is “The Trip to Bountiful,” makes sentimental movies about ordinary people living decent, uneventful lives. But he likes to cast his films with major stars, which creates a problem. Almost by default, the most interesting aspect of “The Only Thrill” is the unresolvable tension between the rather dazzling screen personas of his stars and the colorless, dreary roles they are asked to play.
It’s 1966 and Reece McHenry (Shepard) decides to take a break from land development and open a used-clothing store. Shortly afterward, he hires as a seamstress Carol Fitzsimmons (Keaton), a widow newly arrived in town, and a fateful friendship begins. The married Reece is seeing other women on the side, but he remains loyal in his heart to his longtime wife, who’s in the hospital in a coma from which she will never recover. Reece and Carol are unaware that his teenage son, Tom (Robert Patrick), and her daughter, Katherine (Diane Lane), have met and exchanged their first kiss.
Reece and Carol’s relationship flowers for a decade, during which they are inseparable: working together, taking walks, going to the local movie house every Wednesday afternoon. As is the norm with such mellers, scripter Larry Ketron’s job is to introduce as many obstacles as possible into his multigenerational saga.
The first separation occurs when the tragic illness of Carol’s sister forces her to relocate to Canada. In a parallel path, daughter Katherine leaves town to pursue an acting career. Both father and son are heartbroken, but they patiently await the return of their women. The only real tension in the narrative, which is based on a stage play by Ketron, arises when Carol asks Reece point-blank, “Who is the love of your life?” and he stupidly and insensitively responds, “My wife.” The audience knows better.
Saga concludes at the present time, which sees Carol bedridden with terminal cancer. Determined that his son not repeat his own stubborn mistakes, Reece forces Tom to express his true feelings for Katherine before it’s too late.
There are no layers of meaning or any subtext in the simplistic script. The acting of Shepard and Keaton, who enjoyed stronger chemistry in “Baby Boom,” is adequate, though one is always aware that they are established movie stars playing ordinary individuals. The characters are all likable, but the kitchen-sink material, prosaic treatment and middlebrow sensibility are mildly diverting in the manner of a routine TV movie and lack the dimensions of bigscreen entertainment.