If you put a gleeful performance inside an indifferent movie, does the film get better or does it remain an indifferent piece of work with an asterisk next to it? This is no abstract question, it's what audiences will be deciding should they see "A Simple Wish."
The engaging acting comes courtesy of Martin Short, a comic actor who's been memorable in short bursts (the obsequious Franck in "Father of the Bride" and the impossible agent in "The Big Picture") but has rarely had the run of an entire picture.
In "A Simple Wish" he plays Murray, the world's only male fairy godmother, a bow-tied dervish recently certified as a wish-fulfiller but uncertain at best about his powers. Antic, manic, easily perturbed and prone to petulant, sarcastic remarks ("That's Mr. Fairy to you," he says to a nonbeliever), Short's Murray is quite a piece of business and guaranteed to be as funny a performance as the year will see.
The rest of "A Simple Wish," written by Jeff Rothberg and directed by the veteran Michael Ritchie, is more miss than hit, with more haphazard moments than clever ones. And though it clocks in at only 89 minutes, a surprising amount of that is no more than marking time.
Conceptualized (like much of recent Disney animation) as a kid film spiced up with references to things like collagen and old Bette Davis movies to keep the adults occupied, "A Simple Wish" is also loaded with computer-generated special effects, and that turns out to be unfortunate.
Though they no doubt cost the Earth, the effects here, illustrating the tricks fairy godfolk can do with their wands, are only marginally involving. And the film has a tendency to go to them too quickly, simply because it can, in what feels like an effort to disguise how flimsy much of the script is.
The heart of the film is a 7-year-old with a lot of problems. Motherless Anabel Greening (kid veteran Mara Wilson) has a brother who torments her (Francis Capra) and a singing father (Robert Pastorelli) who drives a hansom cab in Central Park but might relocate the whole family to Nebraska if he doesn't get the lead in an upcoming Broadway musical.
That show, "Two Cities," is one of the film's more amusing sidelights. Based on the Dickens novel and scheduled to be the 23rd consecutive hit for Lord Richard (an amusing Andrew Lloyd Webber parody by Jonathan Hadary), "Two Cities" comes complete with an onstage guillotine and dead-on songs like "It's a Far Better Thing I Do" that director Ritchie wrote to music by Lucy Simon.
Hoping to get her dad the leading role of Sidney Carton, young Anabel puts out a call for a fairy godmother and ends up with the unnervingly nontraditional Murray instead, someone who looks and acts like an absent-minded symphonic conductor. So new at the wish game he keeps referring to written instructions, Murray has the annoying habit of having his spells go "ever so slightly awry," which leads to big-time complications for Anabel and her family.
More than that, Murray is soon forced to tangle with the dread Claudia (Kathleen Turner), a former godmother who was kicked out of NAFGA (North American Fairy Godmothers Assn., "a not-for-profit organization") for giving in to the dark side. Bored with kids and "their insipid wishes," Claudia is bucking to be the queen of mean, and has some dirty tricks in store for NAFGA's members. Only Murray, it turns out, has even a prayer of stopping her.
Turner is very much in the spirit of things as Claudia, as is Terri Garr as NAFGA member Rena. But not enough of "A Simple Wish" measures up to Short's inspired lunacy, to riffs like his wicked imitation of Turner's vocal patterns. That clever a film would probably be too much to hope for but, after all, what are fairy godmothers for?
* MPAA rating: PG, for mild language. Times guidelines: generally inoffensive.
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'A Simple Wish'
Martin Short: Murray
Kathleen Turner: Claudia
Mara Wilson: Anabel
Robert Pastorelli: Oliver
Amanda Plummer: Boots
Francis Capra: Charlie
Ruby Dee: Hortense
A Bubble Factory production, released by Universal Pictures. Director Michael Ritchie. Producers Sid, Bill and Jon Sheinberg. Screenplay Jeff Rothberg. Cinematographer Ralf Bode. Editor William Scharf. Costumes Luke Reichle. Music Bruce Broughton. Production design Stephen Hendrickson. Set decorator Jaro Dick. Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.