A very pregnant teenage runaway finds sanctuary with an eccentric bunch of geriatric weirdos in Dan Gordon’s “Expecting Mary.” This insistently upbeat indie comedy rather disconcertingly mixes screwball humor with Christian parable, with heroine Mary giving birth in the manger of a life-size nativity scene, bathed in ethereal light and accompanied by the “Hallelujah Chorus.” Pic preemed at an Actors Fund benefit (hardly surprising, given its roster of over-the-hill luminaries) and wisely enjoyed scattered play in the heartland before roosting uneasily in Los Angeles and New York, where its kitschy schmaltz makes for unlikely urban fare.
Pregnant, 16-year-old Mary (Olesya Rulin, of the “High School Musical” franchise), escaping Gotham and the abortion mandated by her remarried mother (Cybill Shepherd), hitches a ride with polka-loving trucker Harvey (Elliott Gould) and winds up stranded in a trailer park in Mule Shot, Okla. The floor show in Mule Shot’s dilapidated casino — run by Yiddish-spouting Lillian Littlefeather (Lainie Kazan, revisiting her youthful gig as understudy to Barbra Streisand’s Fanny Brice) and featuring Harvey’s would-be g.f., Darnella (Linda Gray), as one of a trio of cheeryseptuagenarian showgirls — proves overstimulating for poor Harvey, who drops dead of a heart attack.
In contrast with Ellen Page’s Juno, a free spirit in a buttoned-down world, Mary reps an ordinary preggers teen in an all-too screwy milieu. She is taken in by Darnella, whose year-round Christmas-decorated abode abuts the camper of shotgun-toting, pig-loving matriarch Annie (Cloris Leachman in patented sourpuss mode). More than a little weirded out, Mary resumes her journey to L.A. and her musician father (Gene Simmons of Kiss), whose welcome fails to conform to her imagined scenario.
Returning to Mule Shot, Mary is quasi-adopted by Darnella, whose eternal optimism seems poised to conquer all, including the brainless obliviousness of Darnella’s fly-swatting agent (Fred Willard), the angry cynicism of trailer-park owner Della Reese and the self-centered snobbishness of Mary’s mom.
The pic’s quirkiness never fully meshes with its poorly disguised Catholic all-inclusiveness (e.g. a boondock hospital judiciously peopled with various ethnicities). Its oddball humor occasionally pays off, as when Mary, Darnella and Lillian belt out Harvey’s favorite polka at his makeshift Jewish funeral. Usually, though, “Expecting Mary” applies humor to sugarcoat its uplifting message, cutely mocking itself in ways that might have worked if it were funnier. Helmer Gordon (“Murder in the First,” “Wyatt Earp”), whose forte has never been comedy, directs his thesps in cameos that rarely interconnect; comic timing is sacrificed in favor of run-on babble that highlights the characters’ exaggerated lack of faith, hope or charity (Shepherd’s paranoid rants are a case in point).
Tech credits are adequate, and Rulin carries her straight role with aplomb.