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Review: 'Flowers in the Attic' wilts for want of fun

It should come as no surprise that Lifetime's adaptation of "Flowers in the Attic" is terrible.

Of course it's terrible! The book was terrible! Rife with clunky dialogue, ridiculous characters and ludicrous plot twists. It was so terrible you could not put it down.

Child imprisonment! Two kinds of evil mothers! And, oh my sainted aunt, incest! Loving, consensual incest! It was "Blue Lagoon" meets "Sybil" in the days before becoming a vampire replaced teen sex as your mama's worst nightmare.

None of which this "Flowers" gets. The problem is not that it's just terrible, but that it's also no fun. At all.

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Starring "Mad Man's" indomitable Kiernan Shipka as Cathy Dollanganger and Heather Graham as her spoiled and beautiful mother, Corrine, "Flowers" opens promisingly with a self-aware portrait of the Perfect American Family. As Cathy informs us in voice-over, she and her three siblings are so beautiful that the neighbors refer to them as Dresden dolls. Indeed she, older brother Chris (Mason Dye) and their two younger siblings (referred to almost exclusively as "the twins") have that just-scrubbed Eddie Haskell look now inextricably linked with children of the pre-sexual revolution '50s and the mannequin families that once populated nuclear test sites.

Unfortunately, despite Graham's involvement, there is no "Boogie Nights" vibe here, no tasty recognition of the campiness of the story or the culture that popularized it. Instead, it is a dogged adaptation of V.C. Andrews' novel so sanitized that one has to wonder why screenwriter Kayla Alpert even bothered.

This "Flowers in the Attic" plays more like a Disney princess film than a gothic potboiler. As in the book, Daddy Dollanganger dies moments after we've met him, leaving Corrine with a lot of debt and no prospects. She's only ever been good at being pretty.

"The good news," Corrine tells Cathy and Chris, "is that my family is very rich." So off they go to the family manse, where they meet grandma Olivia, Ellen Burstyn in full battle-ax regalia.

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Olivia promptly locks the children in a small bedroom with only the attic as a play area. The bad news is they must stay there until Corrine makes peace with her ailing father and gets back in the will.

Olivia is a physically abusive, sexually perverse religious zealot in a crazy-mama wig-hat. But Burstyn's not allowed to have any fun either (which puts "Flowers in the Attic" on the growing list of Crimes Committed Against Ellen Burstyn; see also last year's "Coma").

Days turn to weeks, weeks into years, and the enormous holes in Andrews' plot become abundantly clear — Why don't these ridiculous children ever try to escape? Because the plot demands that Chris and Cathy become parents to their young siblings and then husband and wife to each other, that's why.

This is what made "Flowers in the Attic" such a dog-eared favorite in the early '80s. Like its cinematic contemporary "Blue Lagoon," it imagined the emergence of adolescent longing in a situation completely removed from the constructs of society, allowing "forbidden" love to be explored with little damage to the protagonists. They are innocent if their actions are not.

Except here the incest is depicted as two kisses and one "morning after" shot. Honestly, these two seem mainly to be passing the time until they finally pull it together to escape.

Lifetime wants to have its arsenic-laced doughnut and eat it too — it wants to dabble in the ooey gooey darkness without getting its PG brand too dirty. The result is a "Flowers in the Attic" that is neither unsettling or deliciously absurd; it's just plain silly. And what's the fun in that?

mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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'Flowers in the Attic'

Where: Lifetime

When: 8 p.m. Saturday

Rating: TV-14-SV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for sex and violence)

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