A gender-flipping remake of “Pygmalion” with a modern twist (or, if you prefer, “My Fair Lady” minus the soundtrack), “The Makeover” puts the Hallmark Hall of Fame back in more secure and satisfying territory after a series of misfires since moving to ABC. Not everything works in this vehicle for Julia Stiles, but the romance mostly trumps the sizable plot holes. If not a complete return to form, it’s an encouraging rebound for those familiar with this venerable franchise who have grown accustomed to better.
Stiles is the prickly and driven Hannah Higgins, who in the early going is stunned to lose a congressional campaign to a likable weatherman. When the seat suddenly becomes open again (don’t ask), she and her colleague (Camryn Manheim) decide to groom and run a language-mangling beer vendor, Elliot Doolittle (“Bent’s” David Walton). This, after the two meet-cute, and he approaches her seeking elocution lessons, hoping to gain a promotion at work.
Instead of a cockney accent, Elliot has an ear-bending Boston one, though like the earlier Eliza, he does have a mooching parent (in this case, his mom, played with gusto by Frances Fisher) to complicate matters.
Actually, “complicated” is a pretty good description for what writer C. Jay Cox and director John Gray have done to the much-beloved source material, adding unnecessary degrees of difficulty. Not only must Hannah teach Elliot to speak properly but also school him on how to perform plausibly in a debate and understand civic issues — all against a rather tight deadline.
If there’s a message here about the shallowness of modern politics — as a beer vendor, he’s the quintessential “guy you’d like to have a beer with” — that’s largely lost in the romantic business of getting Hannah to shed her emotional armor, and Elliot to evolve from bearded galoot to suit-wearing heartthrob. That said, there is something rather clever about a woman with a firm grasp of policy but not the people skills to sell those ideas meeting and falling for her opposite.
Walton, fortunately, has charm to spare (which won’t come as news to “Bent’s” few admirers), helping smooth some of the rough spots. And Stiles, while no Rex Harrison, captures the essence of the Higgins role, without the customary age gap as an issue.
These Hallmark movies are always strategically scheduled before holidays, and this one happens to be the card-maker’s tune-up to Valentine’s Day.
Granted, some might wince to see the original reconfigured in this fashion, and “The Makeover” won’t make anybody’s day begin or have them yearning to dance all night; still, it’s a pleasant enough diversion for a few light-hearted hours, and with a little bit of luck, will help point Hallmark back toward sending the very best.