A well-conceived story executed with a sentimental sketchiness, Showtime’s “Walter and Henry” doesn’t satisfy either as social drama or as family meller. This story about a talented musician’s mental illness and the effect it has on his son provides plenty of opportunity for emotional undercurrents, but rather than subtle nuance, screenwriter Geoffrey Sharp delivers a vague, superficial narrative. Daniel Petrie Sr. directs this sullen tale with a subdued plainness — it moves along a bit choppily, continually threatening to become interesting and genuinely poignant but never getting there.
John Larroquette plays Walter Adams and Nicholas Braun portrays his 12-year-old son, Henry. They live in a trailer on some undeveloped land in Brooklyn and make a living as street performers, with Walter playing sax and Henry demonstrating his defining precociousness on the keyboards. We later discover that Henry’s mother died of cancer some years ago, and since then Walter has raised his son almost completely apart from the rest of the world, educating him well in both humanities and music and infusing him with a rebellious defiance toward the rest of society.
As we enter the story, though, Walter has reached the end of his mental rope. It quickly becomes apparent that Henry is caring for his dad more than the other way around, and pic’s first act leads up to Walter having a breakdown. Confronted with entering the foster-care system, Henry hunts down Walter’s family in New Jersey in search of help.
Walter’s father, Charlie (James Coburn), is stern, demanding and traditional. He’d trained his son to be a classical pianist, and to Walter and Henry, he represents everything worth rebelling against. Kate Nelligan plays Walter’s sister Liz, who looks pained and acts patiently. While Walter is hospitalized with a questionable prognosis for his recovery, Henry enters school for the first time and struggles to deal with the drastic changes in his life.
The rest is pretty predictable and transparent, and what’s disappointing is that the film never really seems to deepen beyond the superficial. The setup provides for genuine depth: Henry is confronted with having his entire life to that point transformed into nothing more than the delusions of a psychotic father. But instead, pic disintegrates into a series of cliched scenes, all accompanied by a heavily saccharine score from Chris Dedrick that makes sure we know when we’re supposed to be crying.
Technical contributions, from Michael Storey’s bland cinematography to Hughes Winborne and Michael Pacek’s editing, give pic the decidedly unsure feel of a rough draft.
Youngster Braun has a likable, positive presence, and certainly captures Henry’s unquestioned intelligence. Larroquette has always been a strong performer, capable of much more than his “Night Court” snideness, but his work is severely undercooked here — in resisting going over the top, he robs the early scenes of their scariness, and his later work lacks specificity. The character’s mental condition, like the film as a whole, remains undefined, with everything marked out in broad strokes, as if waiting to be filled in later.