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Riding the Bus With My Sister

The response to Hallmark's latest just-in-time-for-Mother's Day greeting will surely hinge on how one views Rosie O'Donnell's performance as a developmentally disabled woman, which from my couch sounded way too much like a Pee-wee Herman impersonation to allow for the requisite suspension of disbelief. Undeniably sincere and almost unforgivably sappy, the 224th addition to this hallowed franchise is gimmicky enough to potentially deliver eyeballs. But it's also creatively uninspired, leaving the hope for something more worthy of its tradition in No. 225.

With:
Beth Simon - Rosie O'Donnell Rachel Simon - Andie MacDowell Jesse - Richard T. Jones Rick - D.W. Moffett Valerie - Roberta Maxwell Sam - Peter Cockett

The response to Hallmark’s latest just-in-time-for-Mother’s Day greeting will surely hinge on how one views Rosie O’Donnell’s performance as a developmentally disabled woman, which from my couch sounded way too much like a Pee-wee Herman impersonation to allow for the requisite suspension of disbelief. Undeniably sincere and almost unforgivably sappy, the 224th addition to this hallowed franchise is gimmicky enough to potentially deliver eyeballs. But it’s also creatively uninspired, leaving the hope for something more worthy of its tradition in No. 225.

Loosely adapted from Rachel Simon’s autobiographical book, the story essentially plays like an inverted version of Hallmark’s 1986 classic “Promise,” which starred James Garner as a man who inherits custody of his schizophrenic brother (James Woods) when their mother dies. Here, high-end photographer Rachel (Andie MacDowell) must move in with her sister Beth (O’Donnell) after the death of their father.

Rachel is told that given Beth’s dependency on her father, she’ll need to spend three months helping her adjust. She initially approaches this caretaker role as a huge imposition. But it’s the only way to keep her sister out of a group home, a prospect Beth dreads. Slowly, Rachel is worn down by the extended family Beth has forged with the bus drivers whose routes she frequents, gregariously yammering at them and absorbing every aspect of their lives.

Through flashback, director Anjelica Huston and writer Joyce Eliason reveal the siblings’ tumultuous youth and Rachel’s resentment at constantly being reminded she must look after her sister. And if that’s not sufficient to put Rachel’s out-of-balance life back on track, there’s a dreamy driver (D.W. Moffett) to help her to see Beth through more benevolent eyes, as well as surprisingly sage advice from Beth’s impaired boyfriend Jesse (Richard T. Jones).

Actually, there’s one heartwarming moment near the end of this production, but it’s hardly worth the ride getting there. And while the subject matter is manipulative and seemingly tilted to its promotional value (“Rosie O’Donnell … As You’ve Never Seen Her Before!”), the trip certainly needn’t be this mawkish.

Actors invariably sink their teeth deep into these kinds of showy roles, and O’Donnell, for better or worse, is no exception. MacDowell, by contrast, has the thankless task of portraying an utterly predictable character — a harridan at first who, through Beth’s childlike exuberance, learns how to love, etc.

Being old-fashioned isn’t necessarily bad, but even a sprig of freshness would go a long way toward justifying this excursion.

Riding the Bus With My Sister

CBS, Sun. May 1, 9 p.m.

Production: Filmed in Toronto by the Sanitsky Co. and KidRo Prods. in association with Hallmark Hall of Fame Prods. Executive producers, Larry Sanitsky, Rosie O'Donnell; producer, Sherri Saito; director, Anjelica Huston; writer, Joyce Eliason, based on the book by Rachel Simon.

Crew: Camera, Tony Richmond; editor, Robert Silvi; music, Stewart Copeland; production designer, Karen Bromley; casting, Lisa Freiberger. Running time: 120 MIN.

Cast: Beth Simon - Rosie O'Donnell Rachel Simon - Andie MacDowell Jesse - Richard T. Jones Rick - D.W. Moffett Valerie - Roberta Maxwell Sam - Peter Cockett

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