A first-rate cast can’t overcome a strained, self-conscious premise in “Loving Leah,” which represents the Hallmark Hall of Fame’s attempt to do what amounts to a romantic comedy about a young doctor who — through an obscure tenet of Orthodox Judaism — is asked to wed his late brother’s wife. Lauren Ambrose is wonderfully vulnerable as the title character, but the impulsive act that sets the story in motion proves wholly unconvincing, and the mismatched courtship that follows never fully recovers. Hallmark has a long history of gently exploring cultural differences, but in this case, maybe it shouldn’t have mixed in.
Jake Lever (Adam Kaufman) is a successful cardiologist with a non-Jewish girlfriend (Christy Pusz), whose primary sin seems to be that she wants a lot of bridesmaids. Yet when he hears that his estranged brother the Orthodox rabbi has abruptly died, he can’t bring himself to “deny your brother’s existence” as part of an ancient Levirate ceremony that would otherwise require him to marry a childless widow to carry on his brother’s name.
So Leah moves from Brooklyn to D.C. to live with Jake — both to pursue the dream of attending college and escape the meddling of her overbearing mother (Susie Essman of HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” Essman is fine, but given her better-known character, you sort of keep waiting for her to explode and tell someone to screw themselves, albeit in less-genteel terms).
From there, it’s not hard to figure out where the story is heading, but there are references to “Moonstruck” and “It Happened One Night” (when Jake and Leah are forced to share a room) to help move matters along. Frankly, the sense of anticlimax might have been helped had Hallmark stuck to the previous title, “Unorthodox,” which is insensitive but much funnier.
The main drawback of the telepic, adapted by P’nenah Goldstein from her play and directed by Jeff Bleckner, is that the characters’ behavior doesn’t comport with their profiles — from Jake being naive enough to think his girlfriend wouldn’t mind to Leah falling for him so quickly that supporting players keep reading it on her face.
For all that, Ambrose’s melting eyes nearly pull it off, and she and Kaufman (of CBS’ “Without a Trace”) are surrounded by a fine group of actors, among them Mercedes Ruehl as his mom, Natasha Lyonne as her sister and Ricki Lake (who also produced) as a Reform rabbi.
Timed for Valentine’s Day, “Leah” isn’t necessarily bad, but if Hallmark truly wanted to abide by that slogan about sending the very best, this one should have been passed over.