If Hallmark Hall of Fame ever decided it had to do a knockoff of “Mrs. Doubtfire,” it would look an awful lot like this heartwarming but cloying fantasy telepic from Paul A. Kaufman and Citadel Entertainment about a 75-year-old woman who is able to turn back her physiological clock 35 years and land a nanny job in order to save her daughter’s wounded marriage. Not exactly Robin Williams in drag, but then, “Emma’s Wish” seems more interested in selling us wholesale implausibility than biting comedy.
Here’s the deal: A granny named Emma Bridges (Joanna Kerns wearing a ton of caked-on makeup) who is estranged from her only daughter Joy (Harley Jane Kozak) makes a wish during her 75th birthday party that somehow activates a 35-year-old wish commitment granted her during a carnival by her now-deceased son. Still with us? OK, so she wakes up the next morning looking like she did on that day in 1963, inspiring her man-hungry nursing home roommate Mona (Della Reese) to freak.
Soon enough, Emma has blown that elderly Popsicle stand, cleaned out her checking account, purchased an old-style VW Bug convertible, purchased snazzy new fashions and set out to repair Joy’s marriage after Joy’s husband Bryan (William Moses) is caught philandering. The catch: She has only a month before her old geriatric self kicks back in.
It’s here that things really start to get weird in Cynthia Whitcomb’s hackneyed teleplay, which asks the audience to suspend a tad too much disbelief. Emma, for instance, is able to wrangle a nanny job in the home of her daughter and two grandkids without anyone wondering why she happens to look exactly like grandma did 35 years ago. No one even much questions it when grandma (who now calls herself Mame, switching around the letters of Emma) starts meddling in everyone’s business, changing around the furniture and rummaging through boxes of old photos.
Pretty soon, the cops are looking for the supposedly missing Emma Bridges. But it never occurs to the daughter that this woman living in her house bears a striking resemblance to her mom’s unknown 40-year-old twin. Joy also doesn’t seem overly concerned that her mother has been missing for weeks now. Is it denial or apathy? We’re never sure.
At least in “Mrs. Doubtfire,” we could buy that Williams’ wife and kids may not recognize him in his nifty disguise. There is no such easy leap to be made in “Emma’s Wish,” and while its alternately lighthearted and weepy tone asks us not to take anything too literally, it’s still difficult to work up much empathy when everyone seems to be stumbling around behind blinders.
Telepic vet and “Growing Pains” alumna Kerns turns in her usual convincing, soulful performance, using her puppy-dog eyes to great effect. Reese is superb in her now-trademark feisty senior role (“Touched By a Geritol Tablet”), and Kozak is very good as the world-weary grownup. Helmer Mike Robe keeps everyone sharp.
Yet there’s just too much in “Emma’s Wish” that strains credibility to allow for the film’s highly cultivated sensitive side to grab you. And I mean, is having your mother be suddenly 35 years younger and living under the same roof really something many people would wish for? Tech credits are solid.