If the broadcast networks unofficially have decided that primetime sweeps are all about murder, sex and special effects, then someone forgot to tell the folks behind CBS’ “The Simple Life of Noah Dearborn.” Buoyed by Sidney Poitier’s commanding presence and a solid turn from Mary-Louise Parker, “Dearborn” is an admirable look at shifting value systems and judgmental outsiders. Weakened only by an all-too-rosy finale, this noble telepic, gently directed by Gregg Champion, is proof yet again that good storytelling always trumps high-priced visuals and racy plot elements.
In the title role, Poitier, like he has done so often, faultlessly displays tenderness and passionate inner strength. A timid loner who stands his ground against a gang of greedy businessmen, he conveys both sympathy and intensity without lining either one with overstatement.
Noah is a master craftsman who lives alone in the tiny town of Twin Pines, Ga. A cherished resource in the community, he tends to his farmhouse, volunteers to fix up his neighbors’ homes and keeps to himself in a big way; his human interaction is limited to the locals, especially restaurateur Sarah McClellan (Dianne Wiest). He also is untouched and unaffected by modern comforts and social progress. (He hasn’t even heard of the Beatles.)
Noah’s solitary existence is placed in jeopardy after developer Christian Nelson (George Newbern) offers him a substantial sum of money for his property in order to build a shopping mall. When Noah declines, Christian asks his psychiatrist girlfriend Valerie Crane (Parker) to examine him, hoping he will be certified incompetent.
Valerie agrees to begin an informal inquisition and, in the process, uncovers a charming, bashful man whose commitment to carpentry has kept him eternally young. Rather than side with her lover, who will make a fortune from the transaction, she begins to re-evaluate her own priorities while teaching Noah that the world can be a wonderful, harm-free place.
Poitier’s affecting performance is balanced nicely with Parker’s graceful portrayal as a doubtful stranger who changes her tune. Supportive of Noah’s life choice but genuinely concerned for his well-being, she exhibits a great deal of compassion without sappy sentimentality.
Just as effective is the tale’s treatment. Through flashback sequences that shed light on Noah’s past — his close family members’ untimely deaths left him with emotional scars — Champion and scribe Sterling Anderson get underneath the skin of a man who fears intimacy, and their sensitivity is a welcome quality.
What doesn’t work is the hurried ending, which seems out of synch with the narrative’s unforced approach; the tidy resolution — everyone gets what they want (and there’s even a puppy involved) — belongs attached to a less dignified effort.
Tech credits are very good, with Gordon Lonsdale’s soft lensing a major asset to the rural setting.