CBS appeases its core older audience with its biggest star under contract in the adventure mystery “The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax,” designed as a possible TV movie franchise. The telepic, based on the popular Dorothy Gilman novels about a silver-haired secret agent, offers little of the unexpected, but manages to return star Angela Lansbury to her crowd-pleasing element.
Lansbury stars as Emily Pollifax, a recently widowed woman who often talks to her dead husband, Virgil, and takes to wearing funny hats. Lonely and slightly depressed, Emily is advised to pursue her unfulfilled life ambitions by her family doctor, who is unaware her real desire is to become a spy.
An earnest letter to her congressman wins her an interview at the CIA, where a case of mistaken identity sends her to Morocco on her first assignment. The covert job is considered a “milk run” — an easy task that involves posing as a tourist and picking up a book containing an encrypted message. When headquarters realizes the goof, it dispatches superagent Jack Farrell (Thomas Ian Griffith) to tail her as a precaution. The milk run turns sour when Emily and Jack are taken hostage by a mysterious enemy.
While held captive, the seriously wounded Jack is forced to rely on his unlikely accomplice, and Emily is more than up to the task. An expert at identifying birds and plants from her years with her garden club, she is able to provide important clues for an escape plan.
After a breakout and a few double- and triple-crosses, Emily is on her way home when, acting on a hunch, she follows a suspect to a posh hotel in Switzerland and the intrigue starts flying anew.
Gilman has created an endearing character in the feisty Emily Pollifax, but the pic leans more toward fantasy than mystery. Here the CIA is run more like F-Troop, with upper management first mistaking Emily as an agent, then losing her on assignment and finally inadvertently issuing a hit on her life.
On one hand, Robert T. Megginson’s plot conveys the positive notion that not only is there life after 60, but an exciting and rewarding one at that. More than once, the script touches on society’s disrespect for senior citizens, and part of Emily’s appeal is that she is not easily dismissed. Her life experiences and common sense are an asset in the spy game, and she uses her age to her advantage.
However, there is something extremely disquieting seeing Lansbury as Emily manhandled by terrorists and torturers. Frivolity quickly gives way to peril, and Megginson’s plot has more than its share of jeopardizing situations. Also unusual for this supposedly good-natured mystery is the heavy body count, which is met with a banality that betrays the very nature of Emily’s character.
Still, Lansbury handles the material like a pro, and should be able to withstand the inevitable comparisons to her long-running alter ego, Jessica Fletcher. Thomas Ian Griffith as the dashing Jack smacks of a calculated gimmick by the producers to attract a multigenerational audience, but whatever the motive, the casting stunt works, mainly because it is the elderly Emily who saves and takes care of the young superagent instead of the other way around.
A whimsical music score and Tiny Nicholl’s selection of outrageous hats complete a first-rate production.