Showtime’s “Holiday Heart” is a not-so-cheery tale of a drag queen with a heart of gold who rescues a young girl and her junkie mom. A story of redemption that tries relentlessly to be a tearjerker, telepic, part of the cable net’s concerted push to lure auds with gay-themed material, is too narratively choppy and tonally downbeat. Based on a play, project loses a lot in translation, with director Robert Townsend investing a fanciful story about society’s discards with too much grit and not enough style.
Ving Rhames plays the title character, a much beloved drag performer who has not yet recovered from the death of his policeman lover. Holiday talks incessantly of traveling to Paris, where he dreams of finding a new person with whom he can make a home, but he seems always to be distracted.
The biggest distraction occurs when Niki (Jessica Quynn Reynolds) enlists Holiday in protecting her mother Wanda (Alfre Woodard) from an abusive boyfriend.
Holiday invites mother and daughter to move into an adjacent apartment — he owns the building — at least until Wanda, a recovering drug addict, can get back on her feet.
The three are soon as close as family, and Holiday has put off his Paris trip indefinitely. Alas, the happiness can’t hold, as Wanda falls for drug dealer Silas (Mykelti Williamson) and ultimately reverts to her debilitating habit.
Holiday gets treated quite shabbily, but always remains willing to step in to help Niki, with whom he clearly identifies based on his own fitfully revealed past.
Leading man is an odd mix of enormous strength and emotional vulnerability, and Rhames certainly has the chops for the role. But early on, the actor gets stuck on a single note that manages to be both shrill and sappy.
His scenes in the drag club, where he lip-syncs some disco classics, are done well enough, but ultimately, this is a showy, ineffective performance, all gesture and weepiness with little genuine soul.
Rhames isn’t helped by the overall disjointedness of the pic, which grinds along in small, extremely repetitive bits, giving the sense that this story has too much and too little plot at the same time.
Alfre Woodard’s portrayal of a woman who just can’t stay straight, despite her love for her daughter, reaches moments of heartbreaking crescendo, particularly when she agrees to prostitute Niki in a bid for some heroin.
As you can tell from this last twist, “Holiday Heart” goes quite far into the depths, and what pleasant family moments there are come in offbeat form. There’s a period of time when the drag queen and the drug dealer become a kind of ideal mom and pop for the neglected Niki. This sensibility requires a certain flair, what would be counted as theatricality onstage. This cinematic version, though, is too flat and realistic to make it work.
Writer Cheryl West adapted her own play, but it’s hard to imagine she had in mind the feeling that’s finally achieved here. The dark forces at work seem too overpowering to allow for true redemption. Rhames’ Holiday just isn’t enough of an angel to redeem this world. Things may go on, but it ain’t gonna end in happily ever after. There’s a sweet Christmas message for you.