Vet helmer John Schlesinger treats the story mutedly, which helps keep matters from getting too maudlin. But it doesn’t help them get much of anywhere else. Initial demi-comic tone is borderline-bland, while script just doesn’t attain the dramatic import or character complexity needed for later melodramatics to seem less than forced. Principal figures are all so nice and decent we can’t buy the notion that they’d quarrel so far as an ugly — and child-damaging — estrangement, let alone court battle.
Everett gives these scenes his best shot, limning a father’s terror of losing his son as credibly as he earlier conveys the papa-bambino bond. Thesp’s exemplary timing makes much of middling comic opportunities. And though his co-star gets her own full glamour treatment, his looks and physique are exploited here to unabashed beefcake effect.
As for Madonna and that eternal question — is she a movie star or, more basically, an actress?— by now, 15 years after “Desperately Seeking Susan,” it can only be considered a moot point. Sporting her curly-auburn, modified-hippie-chick look here, she’s lovely, earnest and capable enough. (Enough with that mid-Atlantic Anglophile accent, however.)
Yet in a part Sandra Bullock or Julia Roberts could well sleepwalk through, Madonna still lacks the ability to imbue a character with the simple charisma that connects with camera or audience. Of course, this has never been her problem in other media — but such are the mysteries of life. Her perf settles into a dullish groove (mooning about looking unfulfilled), then a duller one (weeping in nearly every later scene, a tack deployed to better effect by Cecilia Roth in concurrent “All About My Mother”).
Bratt delivers the required bucket o’ charm with ease. Pic’s inconsequential feel is abetted by a roster of supporting figures that script fails to make much of, including Lynn Redgrave as Robert’s supportive mum and Josef Sommer as his pricklier pa. Neil Patrick Harris plays a grieving friend whose lover’s funeral provides an awkward excuse for the first among many versions of Don McLean’s 1973 hit “American Pie” — a song motif used here for no evident reason beyond the fact that it’s the new Madonna single.
Feature pads off the beaten track by presenting a soft-edged, quaint, leafy-hilly L.A. milieu, with production design, costumes and cinematography leaning toward Southwestern pastels. Gabriel Yared’s score is on the treacly side. Other tech aspects are smoothly handled.