Kelsey Grammer is the best thing in “The Real Howard Spitz,” but he’s pushing water uphill all the way in this flimsy family comedy that’s never more than amiable. Cast as a blocked pulp writer who hits a winning streak when he switches to kiddie fiction, Grammer retranslates his “Frasier” persona into a testy scribe who secretly loathes tykes, providing a modest amount of amusement in a pic that has “ancillary” written all over it.
Howard Spitz (Grammer) is a seedy, indebted writer of equally seedy hard-boiled detective novels whose latest manuscript is so bad that his long-suffering agent, Lou (Joseph Rutten), suggests he switch to penning self-help manuals. After a chance encounter with kidtome grande dame Theodora Winkle (a funny Kay Tremblay), Howard instead is inspired to turn his hand to children’s books, creating the bovine shamus Crafty Cow.
Schooled in what kids want to read by the precocious Samantha (assured newcomer Genevieve Tessier), whom he got to know in the local library, Howard hits pay dirt with his Crafty Cow series. There are only two problems: As payback for her advice, Samantha requires Howard (a former private dick) to track down her father (David Christofel); and due to his dislike of children, Howard hires an actor (Patrick McKenna) to impersonate him at public appearances.
The latter wheeze leads to all kinds of embarrassment, as the actor Howard has selected wouldn’t even cut it in summer stock. The former brings him into the family circle of Samantha and her single mom, Laura (Amanda Donohoe, with a phony American accent), who’s reluctant to meet again the man who abandoned her when she was pregnant. Nonetheless, the three set off to find Samantha’s father, whom Howard has located in L.A.
Though Donohoe is wasted in a flatly written role that has her standing on the sidelines, Jurgen Wolff’s script has a reasonable collection of one-liners that Grammer — and Rutten, playing an archetypal Jewish agent — attacks with glee. With more stellar casting down the line, and slicker rather than workmanlike direction by Brit Vadim Jean (“Leon the Pig Farmer”), the concoction could have worked. As it is, the whole movie has the feel of second-league talent trying to make a premier-league comedy, with Grammer forcing a role that a star like Walter Matthau in his heyday would have essayed with ease.
Set in the U.S. but mostly shot in Halifax, Nova Scotia, pic has an OK but careful-with-the-coin look. Canuck lenser Glen MacPherson’s contribution is pro, and the music score busies itself with dollops of noirish pastiche and classical baubles (Strauss, Tchaikovsky). A collection of outtakes at the end, showing Grammer fluffing his lines, comes rather too late to invigorate things.
For the record, the film was set to preem in November ’97 as part of the London Film Festival under the title “Writer’s Block (Or Is It Crafty Cow?),” but was withdrawn at the last moment.