This “Hallmark Hall of Fame” adaptation of Anne Tyler’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is gentle through and through. While not always riveting, “Breathing Lessons” is an antidote to the usual violent made-fors.
The story, a day in the life of Maggie (Joanne Woodward) and Ira Moran (James Garner), puts the couple on the road as they head from Baltimore to Pennsylvania to attend a funeral. This gives them ample opportunity to meet a cast of eccentric characters, as well as review, more or less, their 28-year marriage.
Woodward plays the meddlesome, somewhat dense but always caring Maggie as if she were a force of nature; anyone in her path winds up sharing their life story. Gardner, as Ira, seems content to take a back seat to his wife. In fact, despite the amusing array of ways he expresses disbelief at her antics, her chatter seems to keep him entertained.
As directed by John Erman, their easy chemistry makes believable the longtime union.
As this sets a pleasant tone — more pleasant than the novel’s, in which Ira is more fully drawn and conflicted — most of the drama is left to side stories, which also lose subtle shades of meaning in the adaptation.
The biggest centers on their son Jess (Tim Guinee) and his ex-wife Fiona (Kathryn Erbe), who Maggie, fanning Fiona’s hopes, has decided belong back together. Unfortunately, Jesse hasn’t reached the same conclusion. Maggie, whose motivations are clearer in the novel, ends up looking silly and selfish, which undermines the revelation that will soon take place about her own marriage.
For the most part, however, things move along quite nicely: Robert W. Lenski’s script captures the novel’s homey flavor and realistic dialogue.
A sweet patina permeates the production, from Gayne Rescher’s warm cinematography to James Hulsey’s production design, which nod heavily toward a time when people trusted strangers.