The elements are there, but CBS’ “Crossed Over” is an oddly paced and pandering melodrama that strives for more poignancy than it can muster. All over the emotional map, true crime story is corny when it should be heartwrenching and bland when it should be passionate. The double bill of Diane Keaton and Jennifer Jason Leigh sounds like a dream team, and the woman-behind-bars factor is usually a can’t-miss Nielsen ingredient, but the finished product is a real letdown; it explores none of the darkness that would make one woman pick-ax her victims and another woman befriend her.
A simplistic fusion of “In the Bedroom” and “Dead Man Walking,” “Crossed Over” plays out like a schizophrenic message movie. One moment, there’s a discussion of how condemned Texas murderer Karla Faye Tucker (Leigh) is preparing for a lethal injection, and the next, writer Beverly Lowry (Keaton) is — get this — giving her yoga lessons and talking about good- looking guys while visiting her in prison.
The two have some connection, albeit a small one: Lowry’s rebellious son was killed one day by a hit-and-run driver, and her fixation on his death has led to her fascination with all things death. That includes a strange interest in incarcerated women, especially Tucker, a death row inmate who became a national cause after claiming that she deserves a second chance because of her born-again status. She was executed in 1998.
As she slides deeper into a hole of depression and despair at the expense of her marriage, Lowry finds an outlet by seeing Tucker as often as possible. Part of it is therapeutic — she can share her sadness with someone else in pain — and part of it is a prurient lure: Nobody came forward after mowing down Lowry’s son, so now she feels like she has to understand the mind of a killer.
Waiting patiently is Lowry’s husband Ethan (Maury Chaykin), a kind, quiet man who wants to move on but is handcuffed by his wife’s obsession with the past. He loves her, but can’t go on like this; she loves him, but doesn’t care how he feels.
“Crossed Over” suffers quite a bit from being the warmed-over, small-screen take on a theme that’s getting much Oscar consideration. “In the Bedroom” has been praised for its performances, its writing and its ability to tug the spirit. All those fundamentals are sorely missed here, with director Bobby Roth going for the easy shot, and writer John Wierick going for the extremely easy dialogue (various interpretations of “No matter how much we try, he’s never coming back.”)
Unconvincing at every turn, Keaton tries too hard in scene after scene to rustle up feelings. No luck — looking more like an actress on an audition cued to cry, the vet thesp harnesses few genuine sentiments while going through the motions.
Leigh fares a little better, and not just because she has the juicier part. Unsympathetic but aptly able to switch from victim to villain, she commands more attention as the woman who may be putting one over the American public or who may just be remorseful after all.
But “Crossed Over” should have come down to the intense face-to-face meetings. Life lessons and the value of humanity are the intended points of call here, but the gorgeous guards, the yoga and a “game day” in jail (yes, there’s a race) highlight a new low in made-for programming.
Tech credits are fine, with quick-cut flashbacks adding some gruesome detail surrounding Tucker’s murders. Production design is way out there, however, with the penitentiary looking like a relatively nice community center.