×

TV Reviews: HBO’s ‘Mary and Martha,’ Lifetime’s ‘Call Me Crazy’

The TV movie remains in relative decline, which makes a weekend in which two high-profile versions with big-name stars and overt messages playing directly opposite each other especially noteworthy. It’s also instructive, in a compare-and-contrast sort of way, to consider why “Mary and Martha” — a moving return to intimate form for HBO — represents an emotionally stirring triumph, while Lifetime’s “Call Me Crazy: A Five Film” feels like an empty gimmick, an all-star marketing hook/public-service campaign in search of a movie.

After a stretch in which HBO has relied almost exclusively on attention-getting fact-based films like “Game Change” and “Phil Spector,” “Mary and Martha” harks back to when the service was content to tell great little stories — often with an agenda — that might not have been commercial enough to find a home elsewhere. And if one’s first thought is the 2005 gem “The Girl in the Cafe,” it should come as less of a surprise that “Mary” comes from that movie’s writer, Richard Curtis.

At its core a personal story about two mothers joined in grief, “Mary and Martha” is also a passionate piece of advocacy. Moreover, it reflects Curtis’ penchant for envisioning a world where good can come of ordinary people’s do-good passion, which is both uplifting and reassuring, even if it doesn’t always conform to reality.

Mary (Hilary Swank) is a Virginia mom who drags her young, sensitive son (Lux Haney-Jardine) on an adventure to Africa, only to see the boy die from malaria. Wracked by almost unimaginable pain and guilt — endangering her marriage to her husband (Frank Grillo) — she heads back to Mozambique, where by chance she encounters Martha (Brenda Blethyn), whose grown son (Sam Claflin) had been working as a teacher there before succumbing to the same disease.

Directed by Phillip Noyce, the movie begins with a simple premise: That malaria is preventable, yet the world’s powers, beginning with the U.S., won’t allocate the necessary resources to stop hundreds of thousands of children from dying of it. At first, Mary and Martha simply bond, before seeking a way to mobilize their emotion into action, and progress.

Admittedly, Curtis has a rather facile view of how good can be accomplished, but in a cynical age, there’s something refreshing about old-fashioned idealism, even if the movie hinges on well-intentioned Westerners bringing relief to the Third World. Part of that has to do with the intensely personal approach to the story, and the palpable anguish Swank and Blethyn convey.

“Call Me Crazy” also engages in a kind of advocacy, seeking to shed light on the problem of mental illness, with the wattage that comes from having an assortment of well-known actresses (Jennifer Aniston, Bryce Dallas Howard, Laura Dern, Bonnie Hunt, Ashley Judd) behind the camera. Patterned after the earlier movie “Five,” which dealt with breast cancer, the celebrity-produced effort plays like an excuse to assemble marquee talent in short films, but not in a way that yields much coherence or resonance.

Part of that has to do with dividing the movie into individual chapters named after specific characters. Although the first, third and fifth are loosely connected, the duration of about 18 minutes each doesn’t leave much time to develop characters or escape mental-illness caricatures.

Part one, for example, focuses on Lucy (Brittany Snow), a law student dealing with schizophrenia. In part two, a young girl (“Modern Family’s” Sarah Hyland) wrestles with her bipolar mother (Melissa Leo, the best thing in the film). The third has another young woman (Sofia Vassilieva) bringing home a boyfriend, not knowing her sister, the aforementioned Lucy, will be there.

Part four is a classic “tears of a clown” tale, as a standup comic (Mitch Rouse) and his wife (Lea Thompson) grapple with the throes of depression. Finally, Jennifer Hudson plays an Iraq war vet plagued by post-traumatic stress, endangering custody of her young son.

For all the promotable aspects of having four actresses (along with “Bridget Jones’ Diary’s” Sharon Maguire) direct, the format muddles the message — that mental illness affects people in various ways, and one shouldn’t be embarrassed about seeking help.

Good intentions, however, don’t add up to a decent movie. And while it would be easy to call that appraisal heartless, it comes from someone who finished “Mary and Martha” with a sizable lump in his throat.

 Mary and Martha

(Movie; HBO, Sat. April 20, 8 p.m.)

Cast: Hilary Swank, Brenda Blethyn, Sam Claflin, Frank Grillo, Lux Haney-Jardine, Bongo Mbutuma, Ian Redford, James Woods

Filmed in South Africa and North Carolina by WTTV Working Title Television in association with the BBC and NBC Universal. Executive producers, Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Juliette Howell, Liza Chasin; producers, Hilary Bevan Jones, Genevieve Hofmeyr; director, Phillip Noyce; writer, Richard Curtis; camera, Roberto De Angelis; production designers, Tom Hannam, Beth Rubino; editor, Martin Nicholson; music, Michael Brook, Philip Miller; casting, Mary Gail Artz, Shani Ginsberg, Moonyeen Lee, Alice Searby. 95 MIN.

Call Me Crazy: A Five Film

(Movie; Lifetime, Sat. April 20, 8 p.m.)

Cast: Brittany Snow, Jennifer Hudson, Melissa Leo, Octavia Spencer, Sarah Hyland, Sofia Vassilieva, Ernie Hudson, Jason Ritter, Jean Smart, Lea Thompson, Melanie Griffith, Mitch Rouse.

Produced by Echo Films and Freestyle Picture Co. in association with Sony Pictures Television. Executive producers, Jennifer Aniston, Marta Kauffman, Kristin Hahn, Kevin Chinoy, Francesca Silvestri; producer, Jeff Freilich; directors, Laura Dern, Bryce Dallas Howard, Bonnie Hunt, Ashley Judd, Sharon Maguire; writers, Deirdre O’Connor, Howard J. Morris, Jan Oxenberg, Stephan Godchaux, Erin Cressida Wilson; production designer, Johannes Spalt; music, Alex Wurman; casting, Victoria Burrows, Scot Boland. 120 MIN.

TV Reviews: HBO's 'Mary and Martha,' Lifetime's 'Call Me Crazy'

More TV

  • Bob Chapek Disney CEO

    In Era of Leaks, Disney Manages to Keep CEO Swap a Secret (Analysis)

    In a time of digital transparency, keeping seismic events a secret until they actually come to pass has proven to be an almost insurmountable task. For media companies, the challenge is tripled: Many of them employ staffers whose job it is to ferret out news before it happens and make it known to the general [...]

  • Simone Missick All Rise

    'All Rise' Star Simone Missick on Rarely Seeing 'Messy, Fragile Black Women' on TV

    As the star of CBS’ courtroom drama “All Rise,” Simone Missick takes playing Judge Lola Carmichael seriously, even if the character isn’t always that herself. “I’ve got the fortune of coming up after Viola Davis, after Kerry Washington, that showed networks and buyers and audiences that they did want to see [these] stories told,” Missick [...]

  • Michael Bloomberg, Pete Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren,

    Tenth Democratic Debate Scores Big Early Numbers for CBS

    CBS came out easily on top in the Tuesday night TV ratings race, thanks to the tenth Democratic debate of the election cycle. Last night’s chaotic affair scored a 2.2 rating among adults 18-49 and drew just over 13 million viewers, per the fast national ratings. Those numbers are likely to adjust upwards later in [...]

  • first wives club BET

    'First Wives Club' Renewed for Season 2 at BET Plus

    BET Plus has renewed “First Wives Club” for a second season. “Tracy Oliver’s ‘First Wives Club’ has been hugely successful on BET Plus, served as one of our signature originals at launch and helped us quickly become the largest African American focused SVOD service,” said Devin Griffin, general manager of BET Plus. “Our subscribers loved [...]

  • The Spanish Princess Starz

    Starz CEO Jeffrey Hirsch Lifts Lid on Local Originals Drive for SVOD Starzplay

    Starz CEO Jeffrey Hirsch has outlined the local originals strategy for Starzplay, revealing that a slate of shows are being planned out of the Middle East and India as the business looks to complement its U.S. and English-language pipeline of content. Speaking at the Berlinale Series Market and Conference on Wednesday, the executive told Variety that the [...]

  • Rebecca Breeds Clarice Starling

    Clarice Starling Series at CBS Casts Rebecca Breeds in Lead Role

    Hello, Clarice. Variety has learned that Rebecca Breeds has been cast as the title character in “Clarice” at CBS, which follows FBI Agent Clarice Starling in the aftermath of the events of “Silence of the Lambs” as she hunts down new serial murderers and sexual predators while also navigating the political world of Washington D.C. [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content