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MOVE REVIEW : ‘Daddy’: Sweet Shenanigans

TIMES STAFF WRITER

To fully appreciate “Daddy’s Dyin’ . . . Who’s Got the Will?” (selected theaters), you probably have to be a bigger fan than I am of the knockabout Southern-fried family reunion play-to-movie genre. Playwright Beth Henley (“Crimes of the Heart” and “Miss Firecracker”) is the chief culprit in this burgeoning field. And of course, let us not forget, however much we may try to, “Steel Magnolias.”

“Daddy’s Dyin’..” (rated PG-13) is based on a play by Del Shores, who also wrote the script, and at least it doesn’t try to raise the roof beams, “Magnolias"-style. At its best it has the virtues of sweet, homespun ordinariness, and the cast members move into their roles as if all the whooping and sashaying were newly minted.

The occasion for this particular reunion is the imminent demise of Daddy Turnover (Bert Remsen), a delusional wheezer who can’t recall where he stashed his will. This is a matter of great concern to his assembled brood: Orville (Beau Bridges), a beer-swilling garbage collector; Evalita (Beverly D’Angelo), a sashaying floozie who has brought her latest boyfriend, the hippie-ish Harmony (Judge Reinhold), in tow; Sara Lee (Tess Harper), the family spinster, who looks after Daddy; and Lurlene (Amy Wright), the oldest sister, married to a preacher.

Rounding out the cast is Mama Wheelis (Molly McClure), the clan’s ramrod-righteous grandmother, and Orville’s wife Marlene (Patrika Darbo), a roly-poly sufferer who learns to give as good as she gets from Orville. Keith Carradine also puts in a cameo as the lusted-after local to whom Sara Lee claims to be engaged.

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With a cast this strong, it’s tempting to just click off to the play’s inadequacies and sit back and bask in the pure theater of theatrical performance. Jack Fisk, who directed, has the good sense to keep the actors front and center. He doesn’t try to gussy up Shores’ cracker-barrel japes, and he soft-pedals the play’s ickier sentimentalities. For example, one of the conventions of this genre is that the bickerers all get together at the end and resolve their differences in song. Sound like any family you know?

Shores’ dramaturgy operates on the principle that every character has some little secret that eventually is unveiled. This sort of schematic handiwork is generally regarded as the mark of the well-made play, but it’s too limiting for the actors, many of whom have a full-scale emotional range. You can enjoy what the actors are doing in this movie and still feel the constraints. Bridges, in particular, seems hampered by the role’s thinness, because clearly he has it in him to give a great embattled ordinary-man performance.

The actor who comes off best is Patrika Darbo, who also performed the role on stage and who has such cuddly verve that she could pass as Roseanne Barr’s younger sister. Darbo seems at home in Shores’ universe in a way that’s almost too precious for comfort. If she doesn’t watch out she’s going to end up starring in her own sitcom--written by Del Shores.


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