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TV REVIEWS : Insta-Drama 'Baby Jessica' Cries Out for Perspective

September 25, 1993|CHRIS WILLMAN

You may not quite grasp just how quickly ABC's topical TV movie "Whose Child Is This? The War for Baby Jessica" was turned around until the last scenes, one of which has a character ripping a page off the calendar to reveal the month of August. As in last month. As in perspective being a lost virtue in the age of docudrama-cum-Insta-Drama.

So "Baby Jessica" (Sunday night at 9 on Channels 7, 3, 10 and 42) may win this month's Speed Racer award, but hold the Emmys. While the famous legal battle between sets of biological and adoptive parents over an unwitting 2 1/2-year-old may indeed be the stuff of high drama, and a story that in different forms is as old as Solomon, the treatment here is as perfunctory as you'd reckon.

Anyone who read newspaper accounts of the case might well have envisioned what went on behind the scenes much the same way that the filmmakers have, which really renders the film itself superfluous.

It's based on the account of Jan and Robby DeBoer, the couple who tried--and finally failed--to adopt Baby Jessica, so don't expect too much balance. These would-be parents are played by Susan Dey and Michael Ontkean, who are beatifically wonder-struck guardians early on and tragic heroes for a heartless age later. Dey is good for an excellent matronly cry or three, though the baby talk that's meant to show us what an adoring mother she makes is a bit much.

Their adversaries, the child's biological mother and father, are essayed by Amanda Plummer and David Keith as potentially child-endangering trailer park hicks. Plummer brings a sympathetic, pitiable quality to her underwritten role, but casting such an eccentric actress loads the sanity-skepticism dice about as much as casting latter-day Anthony Perkins.

Toward the end there are a few very effective scenes that subtly play up the weirdness of the whole situation, with court victors Plummer and Keith making visits to the home of Dey and Ontkean, where they are to slowly begin trying to win the affection of the tot they will soon whisk away forever. But mostly, director John Kent Harrison and scriptwriters Jacqueline Feather and David Seidler depend on their narrative's inherent ability to jerk tears without first offering much recompensing insight into the issues involved.

Meanwhile, stay tuned for next weekend's dramatization of the Amtrak train disaster. Just kidding. We think.

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