For an industry immersed in ageism, this movie’s cast demographics — three performers in their 70s plus star Ernest Borgnine, who clocks in at 90 — make the project more notable than its modest ambitions. A cheerful if woefully predictable holiday yarn that weaves in a couple of musical numbers and plenty of caroling to flesh out its 85 minutes, “A Grandpa for Christmas” is a true throwback, leading a wave of Hallmark Channel fare clearly designed to fill a niche the major networks have mostly abandoned.
Borgnine and his co-stars Katherine Helmond and Jamie Farr certainly don’t have to reach terribly far playing a group of old-time actors (there’s also Richard Libertini as a veteran agent) whose kibitzing is interrupted when the young granddaughter of Borgnine’s Bert O’Riley shows up on his doorstep. Poor Becca (Juliette Goglia) has been temporarily orphaned, with her mom (Tracy Nelson) left in a coma following a traffic accident.
Long estranged from his daughter, Bert didn’t even know that Becca existed, but after some initial prickliness, he quickly wins the kid over, hoping to redeem himself because he “wasn’t there” for her mother. Fortunately, it turns out young Becca has a great set of pipes, and there’s this holiday show at school coming up, and Bert and his pals are all enthusiastic about being in showbiz again, and …
So it goes. Frankly, writer David Alexander and director Harvey Frost struggle to drum up much conflict or drama, and even with additional trips to the hospital, the story remains pretty flat and saccharine.
Nevertheless, Borgnine bites into the part with the kind of gusto you’d expect given the dearth of meaty roles for actors born before 1920, and the movie is refreshingly unabashed about plucking emotional chords, however familiar they may be.
At least for those who complain there’s nothing wholesome on TV, Hallmark continues to plug away, building its feel-good library with the sort of movies and talent that broadcasters have long since rejected as too soft and too old. It may not be much of a business, but in a small way, “Grandpa” is a kind of gift.