Latest CBS Sunday Movie starts off with such promise it seems nothing can knock it off track. Writers Barbara Bosson and Joan Tewkesbury start building an appealingly whimsical story about an ailing widow who promises her late husband she’ll scatter his ashes from a certain mountaintop and has to live up to it. But the charm, blown away halfway up the mountain, curdles.
Olympia Dukakis’ Dotty, living in a New Mexico burg and suffering from agoraphobia, hasn’t stepped out of the house in years. Husband Hiram (Andy Griffith, who manages to steal away his every scene), who’s protected her all these years, reminds her of her promise before he heaves ho — and then gives up the ghost.
Their two adult, now-fatherless daughters — blonde Molly (Lucinda Jenney), brunette Taylor (Michelle Rene Thomas) — snipe at one another until Taylor heads back to the big city. Molly, left to watch over Dotty, soon tires of the chore.
Dotty, minded by Fierce Crow (August Schellenberg) and her three transparent Indian spirit guides (who for some reason occasionally turn solid), has Hiram cremated and settles him inside a coffee can. When her daughters refuse to help, she, courageously setting aside her phobia, sets out on foot alone to fling the ashes.
So far, so good. It may be slight, but it’s entertaining and is touched with omens, occasions and Dukakis’ deft characterization. But Tewkesbury and Bosson pass up the chance to intro intriguing characters along Dotty’s way — a routine couple, picking her up on the road, drop her when she talks with Hiram; an eatery owner hands her advice, peanut butter sandwiches and water; a UFOer (Robert Lanchester), ripe with promise, sputters into nothingness; worst of all, the pleasurable Elaine Miles, “Northern Exposure’s” Indian Marilyn Whirlwind, appears only minimally as a wandering Indian seer.
The vidpic not only tosses away its shot at outre characters, but arranges the daughters’ bickering about Dotty’s failings as a mother to be within Dotty’s earshot. It may serve as belated shock therapy for Dotty, but it spoils the vidpic’s earlier sweet, daft, even tender flavor. All things turn into contrivances.
Director Tewkesbury fares no better than co-writer Tewkesbury. The sharp beginnings turn into lingering sentimentality as the pace co-agulates. Dukakis is left with a restructured, everyday woman mooning about her late husband; special, dotty Dotty turns into widowed Mrs. Commonplace.
Jenney and Thomas are acceptable as the discontented daughters and Schellenberg’s Fierce Crow is dependable, but square. Miles, of course, is refreshing, if only briefly.
Denis C. Lewiston photographed the disappointing telefilm with commendable style, and Robert F. Seppey edited the piece satisfactorily. Woody Crocker’s production designs are inventive, and Dotty’s home is so inviting it’s no wonder she hasn’t wanted to leave the premises for 20 years.