Were Norman Rockwell painting in the ’90s, he’d no doubt create the sort of very nearly idealized tableaux of family life represented in “LaVyrle Spencer’s Family Blessings.” Based on the sometime-Harlequin romance scribe’s 1994 novel, this unabashed chick telepic manages to create an utterly synthetic world in which it may take place and frequently plays, with its stilted dialogue and performances, as a watery educational trailer on how to cope with emotions — any emotions.
Credited to two different directors, the pic requires viewers to settle in for vast, barren patches of dry exposi-tion, and telegraphs plot points several commercial breaks before they manage to occur. It’s a tribute to the performers –particularly headliners Lynda Carter and Steven Eckholdt — that they manage to invest as much commitment as they do to their underimagined roles.
The film opens with a sorry piece of misdirection — two cops from suburban Minneapolis (Spencer’s stomping grounds) are dispatched to quell a rowdy party (led by blaxploitation heroine Pam Grier, in a pointless cameo, who is called Pam “Greer” in the credits) and bond with a neglected youth.
We’re made to understand this occurs in the bad part of town because the landscaping isn’t immaculate and the roads have no curbs.
In the next scene, one cop, Greg (Darren Lucas), perishes in a motorcycle accident, clunkily evoked by a belated, slow-motion shot of an empty helmet bouncing. His partner and roommate, Chris (Eckholdt), the product of an unhappy family, must inform Greg’s mother, Lee (Carter) — the sort of merry woman who hums chipper tunes while putting out fresh-cut flower arrangements around her home — of her son’s death. Lee’s reaction is a mixture of stoicism (around others) and inconsolable grief (in private).
With inadvertent camp, she notes her family’s tragic history: One child perished of “crib death, then his dad’s aneurysm — now Greg.” Later, as if reading from a self-help manual, she intones, “We owe it to ourselves to keep our lives as full and as happy as possible.” The stagey quality of these early, emotional scenes makes it difficult for viewers to empathize.
United by their respective losses, Chris and Lee begin spending time together, and become close, much to the consternation of Lee’s college-age daughter Janice (Ari Meyers), who has designs on Chris herself, and Lee’s family, for whom propriety is a guiding philosophy. Only Lee’s teenage son Joey (well played by Brendan Fletcher) approves of the liaison.
Befitting the novelist’s Harlequin background, the romance is presented in a nearly circumspect fashion — Chris and Lee’s relationship is depicted so genteelly, one almost expects to see them lounging in separate twin beds. Chris’ troubled family is visually represented by a front lawn of what appears to be two weeks’ unruly growth.
Ultimately, though, poor Greg’s demise is understood to be the best for all involved — by the following Christmas, his memory is scarcely acknowledged; eventually, all objections to Chris and Lee’s relationship are completely and conveniently squelched.
Since Carter remains so youthful in appearance, the controversial age difference between Lee and Chris doesn’t seem that problematic, though characters seem to enjoy complaining about it. As opposed to, say, “The Summer of ’42,” which wistfully examined a May-December relationship, “Family Blessings” seems to be about an uncompelling June-September tryst. Still, Carter’s performance occasionally suggests the charm and emotional depths the film aspires to, yet doesn’t grasp.
Technically, production design is too prim and tidy to suggest the grittier side of life referred to here. Ken Heller’s music works overtime to create a sentimental mood.