A whole lot of “Moonstruck” meets a little bit of “Sideways” in this multigenerational romantic comedy, which mostly manages to charm despite its high-decibel level and modicum of originality. “Cute” isn’t always an enticing label when describing this kind of lighter-than-air concoction, but for a movie with such modest aspirations — a holiday showcase with stars and ad agency reps among its seven exec producers — that actually feels like an accomplishment.
Set in California’s wine country, the fanciful tale of two feuding Italian clans begins with the ill-fated courtship of Nick and Alicia four decades earlier. Their tempestuous romance ends when the engagement ring he sent while stationed as a soldier abroad never reached her, prompting each to conclude that they had been jilted by the other.
Flash forward to today, and Alicia (Lainie Kazan) has married Johnny (Chuck Shamata), raising headstrong daughter Sara (Patricia Heaton), who is looking to expand their tiny winery. The only way to do so, however, is to acquire vineyards from Nick (Tony Lo Bianco) and his nephew Tony (Vincent Spano) — a deal that both Nick and Alicia, still bitter from the past, vehemently resist.
Sara herself is trudging toward the altar with Brian (David Hunt, Heaton’s real-life husband), a work-obsessed financier who represents the cellphone/BlackBerry version of Tony Roberts’ cuckolded hubby in “Play It Again Sam.” Yet as she seeks to pull the deal together, Sara begins feeling drawn to Tony, threatening not only to queer the acquisition but repeat her mother’s pattern in reverse — tossing away a stable guy for the flinty spark of passion.
“These Rosa women are devils! She-devils!” Nick blusters upon realizing that his kin might follow the path he did with Alicia.
Director Steven Schachter has helmed three of these “Johnson & Johnson Spotlight” presentations, the others being the acclaimed “Door to Door” and less-appealing melodrama “The Wool Cap.” Augmented by Jeff Beal’s jaunty, Italian-flavored score, he’s managed to create a fanciful world where romance is a matter of destiny and overacting seems strangely tolerable.
Heaton is on extremely safe and familiar terrain as the reluctant lover (she played virtually the same role in TNT’s “The Goodbye Girl” remake), and in case anyone misses the “Moonstruck” parallels, there’s a shot of a great big moon partway through. The greater pleasure comes from watching Kazan and Lo Bianco chew their way through the pretty countryside, building toward a protracted but well-staged dinner sequence where wounds old and new will be healed.
As with the wine crop, there’s a current glut of holiday-themed movies, churned out to create family-friendly platforms to sell cards or gifts or baby powder. Still, “The Engagement Ring” somehow tosses together a familiar mix of ingredients and comes away with a tasty enough little snack that, thankfully, doesn’t ladle on the sugar.
For that small favor, we can only say, “A salud.”