(director: Beeban Kidron; screenwriter: from the play by Todd Graff/Todd Graff; cinematographer: David Watkin; editor: John Tintori; music: Rachel Portman; cast: Shirley MacLaine (Pearl Berman), Kathy Bates (Bibby Berman), Jessica Tandy (Freida), Marcello Mastroianni (Joe Meledandri), Marcia Gay Harden (Norma), Sylvia Sidney (Becky), Matthew Branton (Swee’ Pea), Lee Wallace (Uncle Harry), Bob Dishy (Jack), Sylvia Sidney (Frieda’s Best Friend), Louis Guss (Uncle Normy), Irving Metzman (Uncle Al); Runtime: 116; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producer: Peggy Rajski; 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment; 1992)

“Well-observed but shapeless mainstream romantic comedy that reminds one of Moonstruck.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Beeban Kidron (“Antonia & Jane”) directs this well-observed but shapeless mainstream romantic comedy that reminds one of Moonstruck, though it’s thankfully a bit wilder and a little less formulaic. It’s written by actor Todd Graff and adapted from his own off-Broadway work, The Grandma Plays, which is based on events from his own grandmother’s life. This oozing with ethnic humor melodrama is set circa 1969 in Queens (filmed in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn and Queens, New York and in Toronto, Canada) and follows the travails of the dour Jewish middle-aged housewife Pearl Berman (Shirley MacLaine), whose husband Jack just passed away after 37 years of marriage. Pearl is the mother of two divorced and unhappy daughters, the younger, single parent, overweight Bibby (Kathy Bates) and the neurotic elder Norma (Marcia Gay Harden), who can’t face reality any more since her baby died and her hubby split. Norma becomes a movie buff and dresses up as celebs such as Marilyn Monroe and Jacqueline Kennedy. Her strange behavior has deeply affected her sensitive 12-year-old son Swee’ Pea (Matthew Branton), who believes his grandfather is watching over him and he is therefore invincible like Superman. This idea leads to incidents where the neglected child puts himself into unnecessary danger and has to be rescued. Also, living with Pearl in her Sunnyside apartment is her crabby octogenarian mother (Jessica Tandy) who, when not nagging Pearl, plans with her equally sour best friend (Sylvia Sidney) a move to sunny Florida.

On the day of Jack’s funeral, Joe Meledandri (Marcello Mastroianni), an Italian friend of Jack’s, bristling with old-world European charm, and a secret admirer for the last 23 years, pays his respects at her apartment and invites her out for coffee. This causes Pearl’s mom to remark: “She got picked up at her own husband’s funeral.” The cheerful and persistent Joe courts Pearl and befriends her dysfunctional family, bringing his common-man common sense and worldly experience as a former merchant seaman and accordion player to endear himself with the fragmented bickering Jewish family.

The filmmaker does a good job capturing the details of the period such as the moon landing and the Mets miracle season, and relating it to the ongoing drama. Mastroianni’s Casanova cornball moves are amusing; MacLaine’s great ability to show vulnerability allows her character to be the pivotal and most interesting one. But even though the ensemble cast does a good job with the earthy material and the script is strong enough to capture the peculiar everyday trials for the family, after the lunatic oddity of the various characters are uncovered in sometimes funny moments the overlong narrative, nevertheless, wears down and resorts to clich├ęs to answer all the problems presented.

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