The TV movie remains in relative decline, which makes a weekend in which two high-profile versions with big-name stars and overt messages playing directly opposite each other especially noteworthy. It’s also instructive, in a compare-and-contrast sort of way, to consider why “Mary and Martha” — a moving return to intimate form for HBO — represents an emotionally stirring triumph, while Lifetime’s “Call Me Crazy: A Five Film” feels like an empty gimmick, an all-star marketing hook/public-service campaign in search of a movie.
After a stretch in which HBO has relied almost exclusively on attention-getting fact-based films like “Game Change” and “Phil Spector,” “Mary and Martha” harks back to when the service was content to tell great little stories — often with an agenda — that might not have been commercial enough to find a home elsewhere. And if one’s first thought is the 2005 gem “The Girl in the Cafe,” it should come as less of a surprise that “Mary” comes from that movie’s writer, Richard Curtis.
At its core a personal story about two mothers joined in grief, “Mary and Martha” is also a passionate piece of advocacy. Moreover, it reflects Curtis’ penchant for envisioning a world where good can come of ordinary people’s do-good passion, which is both uplifting and reassuring, even if it doesn’t always conform to reality.
Mary (Hilary Swank) is a Virginia mom who drags her young, sensitive son (Lux Haney-Jardine) on an adventure to Africa, only to see the boy die from malaria. Wracked by almost unimaginable pain and guilt — endangering her marriage to her husband (Frank Grillo) — she heads back to Mozambique, where by chance she encounters Martha (Brenda Blethyn), whose grown son (Sam Claflin) had been working as a teacher there before succumbing to the same disease.
Directed by Phillip Noyce, the movie begins with a simple premise: That malaria is preventable, yet the world’s powers, beginning with the U.S., won’t allocate the necessary resources to stop hundreds of thousands of children from dying of it. At first, Mary and Martha simply bond, before seeking a way to mobilize their emotion into action, and progress.
Admittedly, Curtis has a rather facile view of how good can be accomplished, but in a cynical age, there’s something refreshing about old-fashioned idealism, even if the movie hinges on well-intentioned Westerners bringing relief to the Third World. Part of that has to do with the intensely personal approach to the story, and the palpable anguish Swank and Blethyn convey.
“Call Me Crazy” also engages in a kind of advocacy, seeking to shed light on the problem of mental illness, with the wattage that comes from having an assortment of well-known actresses (Jennifer Aniston, Bryce Dallas Howard, Laura Dern, Bonnie Hunt, Ashley Judd) behind the camera. Patterned after the earlier movie “Five,” which dealt with breast cancer, the celebrity-produced effort plays like an excuse to assemble marquee talent in short films, but not in a way that yields much coherence or resonance.
Part of that has to do with dividing the movie into individual chapters named after specific characters. Although the first, third and fifth are loosely connected, the duration of about 18 minutes each doesn’t leave much time to develop characters or escape mental-illness caricatures.
Part one, for example, focuses on Lucy (Brittany Snow), a law student dealing with schizophrenia. In part two, a young girl (“Modern Family’s” Sarah Hyland) wrestles with her bipolar mother (Melissa Leo, the best thing in the film). The third has another young woman (Sofia Vassilieva) bringing home a boyfriend, not knowing her sister, the aforementioned Lucy, will be there.
Part four is a classic “tears of a clown” tale, as a standup comic (Mitch Rouse) and his wife (Lea Thompson) grapple with the throes of depression. Finally, Jennifer Hudson plays an Iraq war vet plagued by post-traumatic stress, endangering custody of her young son.
For all the promotable aspects of having four actresses (along with “Bridget Jones’ Diary’s” Sharon Maguire) direct, the format muddles the message — that mental illness affects people in various ways, and one shouldn’t be embarrassed about seeking help.
Good intentions, however, don’t add up to a decent movie. And while it would be easy to call that appraisal heartless, it comes from someone who finished “Mary and Martha” with a sizable lump in his throat.
Mary and Martha
(Movie; HBO, Sat. April 20, 8 p.m.)
Cast: Hilary Swank, Brenda Blethyn, Sam Claflin, Frank Grillo, Lux Haney-Jardine, Bongo Mbutuma, Ian Redford, James Woods
Filmed in South Africa and North Carolina by WTTV Working Title Television in association with the BBC and NBC Universal. Executive producers, Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Juliette Howell, Liza Chasin; producers, Hilary Bevan Jones, Genevieve Hofmeyr; director, Phillip Noyce; writer, Richard Curtis; camera, Roberto De Angelis; production designers, Tom Hannam, Beth Rubino; editor, Martin Nicholson; music, Michael Brook, Philip Miller; casting, Mary Gail Artz, Shani Ginsberg, Moonyeen Lee, Alice Searby. 95 MIN.
(Movie; Lifetime, Sat. April 20, 8 p.m.)
Produced by Echo Films and Freestyle Picture Co. in association with Sony Pictures Television. Executive producers, Jennifer Aniston, Marta Kauffman, Kristin Hahn, Kevin Chinoy, Francesca Silvestri; producer, Jeff Freilich; directors, Laura Dern, Bryce Dallas Howard, Bonnie Hunt, Ashley Judd, Sharon Maguire; writers, Deirdre O’Connor, Howard J. Morris, Jan Oxenberg, Stephan Godchaux, Erin Cressida Wilson; production designer, Johannes Spalt; music, Alex Wurman; casting, Victoria Burrows, Scot Boland. 120 MIN.