Friday October 18, 1996
You're young, you're successful, and you're in love. Life is a beach, and there is nothing on your horizon but apparent bliss . . . until an ill wind literally blows death your way, knocks your gorgeous wife off the mast of your sailing boat and leaves you haunted by a spirit you can't let go.
If this reminds you at all of "Ghost," the producers of Michael Pressman's "To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday" won't mind if you say so. This sentimental tale of a man fighting through grief, blessed and cursed by the nightly visits of his dead wife, is reaching out to the same romantics who figure that death is no excuse for lovers to part.
Adapted from an 11-year-old play by Michael Brady, "Gillian" plays like an encounter group retreat on Nantucket. It is there, at the beach house of widowed college professor David Lewis (Peter Gallagher), that he and his 16-year-old daughter Rachel (Claire Danes) are joined for the weekend by David's sister-in-law Esther (Kathy Baker), her husband Paul (Bruce Altman) and Kevin (Wendy Crewson), the divorced friend they bring along as a blindsided date.
David hasn't been told Kevin is coming; she hasn't been told that he isn't expecting her. Worse, she doesn't know until she arrives that the weekend marks not only the second anniversary of his wife's death, but her birthday, as well. Gillian died the day she turned 35.
These revelations all come in the first 10 minutes, and whatever magic follows in scenes between David and Gillian (Michelle Pfeiffer), whom he keeps alive in his mind, it can't overcome the intrusive boorishness of Esther and Paul. The harder they push to make him face reality, the more we wish we could get on the next boat out. If he can keep his wife alive, let's leave him alone.
Despite its apparent parallels to "Ghost," "Gillian" takes an entirely opposite path. Throughout "Ghost," we were made to feel desperate for a reunion of Patrick Swayze's roaming spirit with a mourning Demi Moore. In "Gillian," the whole purpose is to get David to give up the ghost.
Between moonlight get-togethers between David and Gillian, the film piles one improbably rude moment on top of another. Esther, who is supposedly acting in good faith, comes off as an insensitive monster. First, she tries to fix her brother-in-law up with a stranger on the very weekend when his grief figures to be strongest, then announces to him that on Monday, she's going to court to seek custody of his daughter. See you at Thanksgiving.
As much as we'd like to look forward to David's nightly walks on the beach with Gillian (anything to get away from Paul and Esther who are having a marriage crisis of their own), there is no magic to them. Pfeiffer makes a regal spirit, to be sure, but the fantasies are too laden with sorrow to be uplifting.
Nevertheless, there are some good performances on display. Gallagher is very convincing as a man in delusional depression and Danes is terrific playing an awkward teenager trying to understand her father's problems while feeling the first stirrings of passion in herself. Freddie Prinze Jr. makes a strong debut as the object of her affection.
Nearly lost in the emotional chaos is Crewson, whose character wants nothing more than to be somewhere else. It's a feeling some members of the audience will share.
To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday, 1996. PG-13, for a scene involving strong language, and for some sensuality and teen drinking. A Rastar-David E. Kelley production, released by Sony Pictures for Triumph Films. Directed by Michael Pressman. Produced by Kelley, Marykay Powell. Written by Kelley, from the play by Michael Brady. Cinematography Tim Suhrstedt. Editor William Scharf. Music James Horner. Production design, Linda Pearl. Art direction, Michael Atwell. Set design, Andrew Menzies, Tim Eckel. Costumes Deborah L. Scott. Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes. Peter Gallagher as David. Kathy Baker as Esther. Claire Danes as Rachel. Bruce Altman as Paul. Michelle Pfeiffer as Gillian. Wendy Crewson as Kevin.