Christmas is but a month away, so let the dramatized holiday life lessons begin! On Sunday, it's "Mitch Albom's Have a Litte Faith" on ABC and ABC Family's "Desperately Seeking Santa."
A word to the wise: If you are a man of a certain age and Detroit sportswriter/professional wisdom-seeker Mitch Albom starts showing up at your door, you'd best get your affairs in order, because pal, your days are numbered.
At its worst, "Have a Little Faith," which tells of Albom's life-changing relationship with a beloved old rabbi (Martin Landau), is a cynical, preachifying attempt to recapture the success of the Emmy-winning "Tuesdays With Morrie," which told the tale of Albom's life-changing relationship with a beloved old college professor (Jack Lemmon).
At its best, "Faith," also adapted from a book of the same name, is an opportunity to watch Landau, an actor so gifted he can raise a shine from a wooden nickel.
Aiding him in this task are Bradley Whitford, Laurence Fishburne and the woefully under-used Tony-winner Anika Noni Rose, and if they don't quite measure up to Landau, it's mainly because their parts aren't as good. Whitford plays Albom (a role originated by Hank Azaria in "Tuesdays With Morrie"), columnist, TV star and bestselling writer who, back for a book signing in his hometown, runs into Albert Lewis (Landau), the rabbi of his youth.
Lewis asks Albom to write his eulogy — no, he's not dying, but he is pretty old and it's good to plan ahead. "Why me?" Albom wonders, as if he had not spent several hundred weeks on the bestseller list with a book about the musings of another elderly gent.
But "Have a Little Faith" isn't just about Albom; well, actually it is, of course it is, but this time his life was changed by two men — Lewis and Henry Covington (Fishburne), a black man from a very broken home who falls into the slough of despair (i.e. crime and addiction) only to be saved by an eleventh-hour surrender to God. From the two, Albom learns that, Jewish or Christian, a significant life is all about family and hope and giving back to others.
Just writing this makes my stomach hurt, not because I don't believe in the transformative power of faith or that Albom is sincere in his efforts to make the world a better place, but because the movie is so unnecessarily painful to watch.
At least a half-hour too long, it is slow, repetitive and predictable — a self-indulgent exercise on Albom's part (he wrote the script). And it's the actors who pay time and again in scenes that have no sense of pacing, often no point, and in Fishburne's case, require a ludicrous wig-hat, the likes of which has not been seen on network TV since Howard Cosell. Watching, you can only hope that each of these fine performers finds a home on some perfectly splendid series and becomes permanently unavailable for projects like this one.
Just as transparent a life-lesson, but measurably less smug is ABC Family's "Desperately Seeking Santa." Written by Michael J. Murray ("A Town Without Christmas") and directed by Craig Pryce, it's a modern reworking of the basic principles of "Miracle on 34th Street." As the head of marketing for the financially beset South Boston Mall, Jennifer Walker ("V's" Laura Vandervoort) must figure out a way to boost sales, earning her a promotion and, she believes, saving the mall.
Brainstorm: What about a new Sexy Santa! Except the best candidate is David Moretti (Nick Zano), who recently gave her some crap in the coffee line! How irritating, how exasperating, how … hey, wait, he really is pretty cute isn't he?
David is fighting battles of his own — his longtime family pizza place is about to be shut down by Corporate Greed. So instead of, say, joining Occupy Boston, the two do the Christmas push-me, pull-you dance, to the consternation and delight of their narrative support staff — Jennifer's WASPy-cold boyfriend, her sassy BFF and two gay pals, and Nick's loving and colorful family.
Even though you know Exactly What Is Going to Happen, Vandervoort and Zano make very nice dance partners — Zano in particular is quite good, keeping things close to believable, no small task in a story that involves romance in a mall and evil developers disarmed by a hotly delivered monologue. And the rest of the cast members are surprisingly fresh in their cardboard-box roles, leaving you happy that Moretti's isn't really closing, because it looks like a darn nice place to get a slice, should you ever be in South Boston at Christmas.