The chicken flaps, the diphthongal vowels, the wide-eyed takes--all of Jackie Gleason's trademarks can be seen in Brad Garrett's portrayal of the comedian in CBS' Sunday-night movie "Gleason."
That performance may be reason enough to tune in at 9 p.m., but the rest of the movie is as disastrously ill-conceived as one of Ralph Kramden's get-rich-quick schemes on "The Honeymooners."
As biography, the project is a bust. Its only insight into Gleason is the cliche that great comedy often comes from the heart of darkness.
In flashbacks from the height of Gleason's accomplishment with "The Jackie Gleason Show" and "The Honeymooners" in the mid-1950s, the movie looks back down a rocky road. Bitter disappointment between Gleason's parents (a frazzled Paula Jean Hixson and a dissolute Jack Langedijk) is followed by a repeat of the cycle in Gleason's marriage to Genevieve Halford (Gretchen Egolf).
Seemingly unable to maintain control over his personal life, Garrett's Gleason obsessively takes charge of his work, bullying his writers, lecturing his co-stars and generally biting the hands that feed him--especially that of his guardian-angel manager, George "Bullets" Durgom (Saul Rubinek).
Under Howard Deutch's direction, the movie--reported to be a reworking of the script credited to Rick Podell and Michael Preminger--trudges through the early years, picking up pace only when it is well into its second hour. As one might expect, re-creations of "Honeymooners" scenes (opposite Kristen Dalton as Audrey Meadows and Michael Chieffo as Art Carney) are the show's highlight. But there are surprisingly few of them, presented mostly in a rush in the program's final moments.
Garrett, though, is amazing. A recent Emmy winner as a supporting actor on "Everybody Loves Raymond," he bears a striking resemblance to Gleason even without the facial prosthetics and body padding that he wears here. In addition to evoking Gleason's voice and manner, he suggests the rough-edged charm and vulnerability that lurked so compellingly beneath the real Gleason's surface.
"Gleason" can be seen Sunday at 9 p.m. on CBS. The network has rated it TV-PG-D (may not be suitable for young children, with an advisory for suggestive dialogue).