The lead time between captivating national news stories and their dramatic depiction on TV keeps getting shorter. Only seven weeks and six days after the sobbing Baby Jessica was returned to her biological parents, the toddler materializes in a TV movie. Baby Jessica joins Betty Broderick, Amy Fisher and David Koresh as the speediest celebrity transformations to the tube.
Has the movie held up under the production pressure? With allowances for a “work-in-progress” screening print and the legions of viewers expected to turn this heartwrencher into a five-hanky movie, the answer is generally no.
Given the nature of the material — the heights of giddiness and despair, wailing adults, custody battles and a crying baby literally torn from her loving , adoptive parents at fade-out –“Baby Jessica” must rank as the most lachrymose TV movie of the year.
As if reflecting much of the media coverage that riveted the nation for two years, the production shamelessly trumpets the cause of the adoptive parents. That’s the movie’s singular glaring liberty — stacking the deck so heavily in favor of the “Home and Garden”-typeparents, Robby and Jan DeBoer (Susan Dey and Michael Ontkean).
In contrast, birth parents Cara Clausen and Dan Schmidt (Amanda Plummer and David Keith) come off as selfish, callow, trailer-park lowlifes with the nerve to want their baby back after the mother (but not the father) agreed to give her up.
In truth, the moviemakers (including exec producers Bernard Sofronski and Dale A. Andrews; producer Robert Frederick, director John Kent Harrison and scripters Jacqueline Feather and David Seidler) needed to take more license to better balance the human score sheet and keep the dramatic events from looking so black and white.
Feather and Seidler’s script, as signaled by an opening disclaimer, is based on court transcripts and published reports. Trouble is, the scenes and dialogue that the writers understandably had to make up are, like most of the movie’s factual parts, either flat, cuddly or histrionic.
The project’s major strength is Plummer’s biological mom; she is vivid, scrawny and refreshingly unlikable — as authentic as a gob of mud. Keith is also effective as her temperamental truck driver lover who married her in the midst of the custody battle. Dey and Ontkean, on the other hand, are locked into tearful, no-win roles predicated on predictability and melodrama.
The one genuinely lovable figure in the movie — no, it’s not the baby — is Miles, the DeBoers’ white spaniel. He’s such a sweetheart, cavorting with the family in their front yard, that he steals the movie out from under the baby. Where is W.C. Fields when you need him?