MOVIE REVIEW : 'Wishes' a Heart-Tugger That Captures Aura of the '50s


"Three Wishes" is a wonderful film, full of warmth, humor and charm, a family drama with the possibility of the supernatural. It is an uncommonly accurate period piece, the kind that goes beneath the surface, and its stars, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and Patrick Swayze, are in peak form.

It's the summer of 1955, and Jeanne (Mastrantonio), a young Korean War widow with two sons, Tom (Joseph Mazzello) and Gunny (Seth Mumy), are in their car when Jeanne swerves to avoid hitting a dog only to strike its owner, Jack (Swayze), breaking his leg. Jeanne ends up insisting that Jack, a drifter, stay with her family in their home in a pastel-hued Southern California tract--it brings to mind the one in "Edward Scissorhands."

While Jack is about as low-key and unobtrusive as a person could be, he cannot help but stand out in the neighborhood, rocking it with rumors of backyard sunbathing in the nude and acquiring the disparaging label "beatnik." Jack, handsomely bearded, and Jeanne, whose striking resemblance to Jackie Kennedy may be intended by the filmmakers, are highly attractive people, but Jack makes no move on her and she discourages him from the get-go. She in fact is just about to be courted seriously by an old beau, Phil (David Marshall Grant), a businessman who attributes his success to her inspiration.

What Jack radiates is a calm strength that awakens people to the potential within themselves. He's helpful in as self-effacing a way as possible but galvanizes the neighborhood when his Buddhist chant/yoga/meditation approach to coaching the youth baseball team propels it to unexpected triumphs. By then he's become for Tom the adored father he lost. Jeanne is falling in love with him, too, but is not prepared to acknowledge it.

Magical things do happen, mainly in relation to 5-year-old Gunny, but in such a way that if we so choose we can take them as an expression of the power of the imagination and perhaps faith, too. "Three Wishes" is a heart-tugger but one that pulls with genuine emotion. Inspired by European folklore, co-producers Clifford and Ellen Green wrote a 30-page outline for the film and hired Elizabeth Anderson, an unknown with a Sundance Writing Workshop fellowship, to develop it into a script.

They actually dare to suggest that if you do a good deed, as Jeanne did in giving Jack shelter, that you will be repaid in kind. Martha Coolidge, in turn, is just the right kind of straight-ahead yet sensitive director to keep this notion from seeming too sappy in these cynical times.

Even if 1955 happened to be a great year for you, the film constantly reminds us how pervasive conformity was back then. Jack tells Tom that "people aren't all alike, they just think they are," and his presence is crucial in reassuring Jeanne of her capability at a time when the pressure upon women to depend on a man was intense. This awareness undercuts the film's potential for gooey nostalgia yet acknowledges how much stronger a sense of community was 40 years ago, even though it was already disintegrating in most urban cities.

Production designer John Vallone brings to "Three Wishes" the same kind of authenticity he brought to Coolidge's film of Neil Simon's "Lost in Yonkers." Like "Devil in a Blue Dress," "Three Wishes" is accurate in its Atomic Age architecture and decor right down to the kitchen appliances. Similarly, costume designer Shelley Komarov's clothes are as period perfect for 1955 as they were for 1944 in "Yonkers." Cynthia Millar's score is emotional without being treacly, and this handsome, burnished film marks the seventh collaboration of Coolidge and cinematographer Johnny E. Jensen.

The hallmark of a Martha Coolidge picture is its performances, and under her direction Mastrantonio reveals many facets of the irresistible Jeanne, a conventional woman to all appearances but one capable of thinking for herself. It is a thoroughly endearing portrayal, as is that of Swayze as Jack. Having created a glamorous drag queen of dignity, strength and compassion in "To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar," Swayze now shows us a man of strength held in reserve, a man with an aura of serenity rather than obvious mystery. Swayze holds the screen often saying little and doing even less through sheer presence. One of the most accomplished young actors in films, Mazzello, with "Jurassic Park," "Shadowlands" and "The River Wild" already behind him, is splendid as the bright, vulnerable yet tenacious 11-year-old Tom in a role that is arguably the film's most demanding and furthest-ranging. Mumy and Grant head the fine supporting cast. "Three Wishes" is the kind of film you wish they made more often.

* MPAA rating: PG, for mild language and sensuality, and for a scary fantasy . Times guidelines: The film is suitable for all ages.


'Three Wishes'

Patrick Swayze: Jack

Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio: Jeanne Holman

Joseph Mazzello: Tom Holman

Seth Mumy: Gunny Holman

David Marshall: Grant Phil

A Savoy Pictures release of a Rysher Entertainment production. Director Martha Coolidge. Producers Clifford & Ellen Green and Gary Lucchesi. Executive producers Larry Albucher, Keith Samples. Screenplay by Elizabeth Anderson; from an original story by the Greens. Cinematographer Johnny E. Jensen. Editor Stephen Cohen. Costumes Shelley Komarov. Music Cynthia Millar. Production designer John Vallone. Art director Gae Buckly. Set designer Tom Reta. Set decorator Robert Gould. Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes.

* In general release throughout Southern California.

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