Some really odd casting — Paul Reiser as the long-lost son of Julie Walters — hinders but doesn’t topple this sincere cancer drama that only masquerades as a comedy. Walters (“Billy Elliot,” “Educating Rita”) delivers her usual, and wondrous, working-class toughie with the heart of a softie, and she invests this Showtime telepic with enough compassionate fortitude to overcome the absurd contrivance that she and Reiser are “Strange Relations.”
Written by Yank actor-writer Tim Kazurinsky and directed by Brit Paul Seed, the film mixes American and English sensibilities. It starts out a bit awkwardly on this side of the Atlantic.
Jerry Lipman (Reiser) is a New York psychiatrist approaching 40 who keeps falling asleep on his clients. Whatever comic potential this seems to imply quickly gives way to drama, as Jerry is soon diagnosed with leukemia. He needs a bone marrow transplant, but a match is hard to find. Upon discovering that siblings make the best donors, Jerry’s cold fish of a mother Esther (Olympia Dukakis) confesses that Jerry was actually adopted in England.
Pic finds its voice once Jerry arrives in Liverpool, where he hunts down his biological mother, who lives in a poor neighborhood that strikes the Range-Rover driving Jerry as worse than a slum — the film was shot in Liverpool and Manchester, and Chris Truelove’s production design nicely captures the working class milieu.
Once Walters enters the scene as the no-nonsense Sheila Fitzpatrick, not even the (necessary) jokes about how Jewish Jerry looks and how odd it is that his last name’s actually Fitzpatrick, or the highly predictable nature of the proceedings, can keep “Strange Relations” from being likable, and even heartwarming.
Sheila welcomes her long-lost eldest with wide-open arms, and soon the rest of the family does as well. Jerry keeps his cancer secret for a while, using methods other than the truth to persuade his two newfound brothers, sad-sack Frank (Tony Maudsley) and drug-addled Derek (Ian Puleston-Davies), to take a blood test to see if they’re compatible donors. He also starts falling for Derek’s ex-wife Maureen (Amy Robbins), who, of course, returns his affections. His burgeoning relationships make it even harder when the truth outs.
The English actors dominate the pic, and their scenes give it the occasional feel of a high-quality indie. But Reiser can’t quite find the depth in Jerry, a problem that really stems from the under-written nature of the character as well as the casting. He’s not just a fish-out-of-water, he’s a little yellow goldfish among a group of gorgeous tropicals.
His trademark sarcasm though, does help keep the piece from descending into sentimental tripe. And that’s good enough, because the glorious Walters takes it from there.