TV REVIEWS : Garner, Woodward in Sweet 'Lessons'

"Breathing Lessons," Anne Tyler's 1988 Pulitzer-winning novel spanning a single day in the life of a middle-aged couple, has been warmly brought to the screen by James Garner and Joanne Woodward for "Hallmark Hall of Fame" (9 p.m. Sunday on CBS, Channels 2 and 8).

Woodward's irrepressible homemaker Maggie Moran is a relentless dreamer and incorrigible optimist who constantly blurs the line between meddling and caring. Garner's husband, Ira, who runs a picture-frame shop, wryly maintains an embarrassed distance from his wife's scheming while quietly cherishing her big, blundering heart.

The co-stars appear so at home in these roles that they bring to Tyler's characteristically offbeat protagonists a warm, humorous luster that's refreshingly devoid of sentimentality. Like a quirky variation on Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn in the movie "On Golden Pond," or like a younger Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy in almost anything they do together, Garner and Woodward have merely to hold hands to cast the easy glow of happily married people reaffirming their love.

That dramatic conflict can indeed spring from such non-contentious, eccentric material is one of novelist Tyler's literary hallmarks. But bringing this off on the screen is another matter. Besides Garner's and Woodward's natural blending of opposites, the movie's primary achievement begins with the adaptation by producer-director John Erman and screenwriter Robert W. Lenski.

Anchored by the couple's larky car journey into the bucolic countryside to attend the homespun funeral of a family friend, the production (shot in Pittsburgh) segues from picturesque encounters with roadside characters (Paul Winfield's erratic driver who lives out of the trunk of his car, Joyce Van Patten's flamboyant widow, Eileen Heckert's waitress) to a subplot involving the couple's disaffected offspring.

The bittersweet ending, following Woodward's efforts to reunite her floundering, biker son (Tim Guinee) and jaded ex-daughter-in-law (Kathryn Erbe), is the perfect non-ending for a deceptively ordinary day that makes our couple's whole 29-year marriage seem eventful.

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