Once upon a time, the major networks dared produce a few character-driven TV movies that weren’t ripped from the headlines and didn’t feature serial killers. From that hoary playbook comes “Wilder Days,” the latest TNT presentation from sponsor Johnson & Johnson, which recently powdered the Emmy competition with “Door to Door.” Earnest but overbearingly schmaltzy, this road movie isn’t likely to amass that kind of hardware, at best providing a showy role for 76-year-old Peter Falk as well as a safe two hours in which to sell baby shampoo.
Falk actually seems to pick up where he left off with his small part in “The Princess Bride,” playing a doting grandfather who regales his grandson Chris (Josh Hutcherson) with fantastic tales — here about the Wilder Days, a circus boat full of magic and adventure that sailed the East Coast.
Falk’s character, however — known awkwardly as Pop Up because of the pop-up books he assembles for the kids — was himself an absentee father and is still resented for it by his own son and Chris’ dad, John (Tim Daly).
This generational skip from father to son is highly familiar territory, as is the road movie flourish after Chris helps Pop Up escape from a nursing home and they take off in a 1959 Cadillac Eldorado, with John in pursuit.
That John has deep-seated issues with his dad, and can learn a thing or two about fatherhood himself, would be more compelling if it weren’t so thuddingly obvious. When John’s supportive wife (Kate Vernon) tells him by phone that he is “someplace you’ve never been before” and he sarcastically agrees, damned if she doesn’t say, “No, I mean emotionally. You’re someplace new. I can hear it in your voice.”
Falk clearly has fun as the larger-than-life old man, whose minor dementia yields what little suspense the movie attempts to generate. Daly does what he can with the tightly clenched father, who endures a series of indignities en route to his inevitable breakthrough.
In telling this all-American tale (shot in Vancouver), it doesn’t help that director David Mickey Evans — a veteran of family-oriented projects like “The Sandlot” and “First Kid” — brings such a heavy hand to the task of adapting Jeff Stockwell’s script, including Earnest Troost’s omnipresent score.
Admittedly, sponsors have been responsible for plenty of worthwhile programs (witness “Hallmark Hall of Fame”), but their influence remains suspect when the desire to create a “wholesome environment” trumps creativity, fostering in ass backwards decision-making. A Johnson & Johnson executive notes in the press binder that the movie is designed to “broaden the number of television options families can view together” — a laudable enough goal in theory, but in this case a tedious exercise in practice.
To be fair, perhaps nothing is harder to achieve than that ideal of appealing to “kids of all ages,” and this latest TNT entry isn’t objectionable except perhaps for its notable lack of inspiration. As much as Johnson & Johnson would like to dial back the clock on primetime permissiveness to the time of “Ozzie & Harriet,” all it has created with “Wilder Days” is one pretty tepid night.