The American South is once again romanticized for no compelling reason in CBS’ undemanding “A Painted House.” Sweet-natured pacing and a wholesome approach make this adaptation of John Grisham’s well-reviewed novel a perfect entry into the Hallmark Hall of Fame repertoire, and it’s an ideal fit after the series finale of “Touched by an Angel.” But, narratively speaking, director Alfonso Arau and scripter Patrick Sheane Duncan’s exaggeratedly simple tack wears thin quickly. As big as the book was in 2001, Grisham’s move away from legal thrillers just doesn’t translate into a meaningful movie; it’s a slice of life that instantly evaporates.
The Arkansas tale blends autobiographical elements with generational lore as it revolves around 10-year-old Luke Chandler (Logan Lerman). His family is like a Norman Rockwell portrait, with doting mom Kathleen (Arija Bareikis), Atticus Finch-ish dad Jesse (Robert Sean Leonard) and grandparents that are wise and wonderful beyond belief (Scott Glenn and Melinda Dillon).
Luke grows up quickly in the summer of 1952, when a group of Mexican migrant workers and the mountain-dwelling Spruills converge on the Chandler farm to pick cotton for hire. The Spruills are welcome, but their biggest liability is hothead son Hank (Pablo Schreiber), a violent monster who kills a man in town after a pointless brawl and who scares Luke, who saw the whole thing, into silence.
After seeing his sister liplocked with one of the hired hands down by the creek, Hank goes nuts and challenges the suitor to a fight. Luke is warned not to talk once again, and he’s torn between lying to protect his hide and the truth. In the meantime, the crop has been battered by a heavy storm that jeopardizes the Chandlers’ welfare, and Jesse and Kathleen get a visit from a Michigan cousin who tells of grand stories working on the assembly line. So after troubles with Hank and nasty weather threatening their year’s income, they discuss the possibility of moving north and starting over.
Narrated by Grisham, “House” lays out some topical elements, but doesn’t deal with any of them in depth — mainly how the midcentury Deep South consisted of class warfare that people outside of the immediate area never understood. The relationship between the Chandlers and the Spruills is a fascinating dynamic, especially since neither of the clans is that well-off, but, comparatively, one looks wealthy.
Schreiber (Liev’s brother) has down pat the look and mentality of a dirty hillbilly, but the rest of the performances are edgeless. Bareikis, looking more like Laura Linney in everything she does, is lovely enough, but she’s dreamlike, not authentic. Ditto Leonard, who doesn’t exhibit anything more than viewers have come to expect in this kind of dad character, all based on Gregory Peck in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Logan is strong as a precocious youngster around whom the entire story orbits.
Filmed on location in Clarkedale, Ark., the authentic touches are quite welcome, with neither soundstages nor sets junking up the look or the feel.