First, a personal note: the first time I saw the original “David and Lisa,” I was all of 5 years old, the son of parents who didn’t understand that maybe this wasn’t exactly appropriate material for an impressionable little kid to watch on a bigscreen. It deeply affected me to see hypersensitive oddballs weren’t restricted to my dysfunctional family.
By contrast, this made-for-TV “David and Lisa” lacks a similar surrealistic sense of disconnection and despair as was embodied in the boffo work in ’62 of newcomers Kier Dullea (who would go on to star as Dave in “2001: A Space Odyssey”) and especially Janet Margolin. What it carries instead is a spirited message that love conquers all, even if you happen to be a teenager who is certifiably wacko. Unfortunately, “David and Lisa” never really gives us a sense of why its protagonists are the way they are, other than clearly misfiring synapses.
Lukas Haas is all doe-eyes, oversized ears and tortured angst as David, a genius who has a pathological fear of being touched and excruciating recurrent nightmares in which he uses a giant clock to behead anyone who dares invade his tortured space. His perplexed mother commits to a school/institution for troubled youth where he meets the compassionate Dr. Jack Miller (Sidney Poitier) and a luminous young woman named Lisa (Brittany Murphy).
Dr. Miller works hard to bust through David’s impenetrable facade, but it’s Lisa — an emotionally-disconnected waif who will speak only in rhyme — who is finally able to lower David’s defenses with her pouty lips and puppy-dog vulnerability.
Murphy, so good as the sad-sack Tai in the film “Clueless” and who gives voice to LuAnne each week in Fox’s “King of the Hill,” is terrific here as well, turning in sparkling work as a complex lost soul. She pulls off the difficult trick of blending coquettish sensuality with aimless angst, in the process supplying the film’s true backbone.
Haas, the Amish kid in “Witness” all grown up now, makes David ultimately emerge as unlikable, worthy of our pity but not our support. And it doesn’t help that he has virtually no chemistry with Poitier, who tries gamely to stretch his understanding “To Sir, With Love” persona into shrinkdom. But as fine an actor as Poitier is, it doesn’t quite work because he’s miscast, coming across as strangely cut off.
Teleplay from helmer Lloyd Kramer (with assists from Eleanor Perry and from Theodore Isaac Rubin, who penned the book on which the original movie was based) sticks closely to the simplicity that guided the first “David & Lisa.” But for some reason, the dialogue comes across here as a bit trite and repetitive.
It all represents a nice try for Oprah and her Harpo Prods., a swell attempt to make a film about tangible human emotions rather than the usual babes in jeopardy. But it’s undercut by the distinct feeling we’ve been down this road before. Because we have.
Tech credits are superior.