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Television Review

'Flamingo Rising' Adds Heart to Offbeat Tale

February 03, 2001|STEVEN LINAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

On its face, "The Flamingo Rising" is the simple story of a man who builds a neon-lighted drive-in theater on the sun-splashed coast of Florida during the late '60s. However, under the sure hand of director Martha Coolidge ("Introducing Dorothy Dandridge"), the tale turns out to have more heart and heartache than one would have anticipated in the film's early, carefree moments enlivened with spirited songs of that decade.

Comical, bittersweet and tender, this slightly off-center "Hallmark Hall of Fame" drama airing Sunday on CBS stars Brian Benben as Hubert T. Lee, a war veteran from North Carolina who adopted two Asian infants during the Korean War. Years later, the charming Hubert builds "the world's biggest movie screen," part of a successful theater serving as the home for his wife, Edna (Elizabeth McGovern), son, Abraham (Christopher Larkin), and daughter Louise (Olivia Oguma).

The story is told from the perspective of Abraham, a shy, bespectacled kid with braces and a deep love for his parents. Hubert, who firmly believes everything happens for a reason, moves across the highway from Turner Knight (William Hurt), a dour funeral director he perceives as his antagonist. It's a symbolic Life versus Death equation, according to Abraham's voice-over, which telegraphs something to come. The widower Knight, meanwhile, is attracted to Edna, who plays a key role as intermediary on more than one occasion.

Hubert is likable yet childish and obstinate, an "overgrown adolescent" whose stubbornness gets the better of him and whose zealous efforts to promote his business can be reckless and ill-advised. Edna has a soft, seductive drawl and infinite patience with her husband, who at one point declares a genuine curiosity about why she loves him.

The script by Richard Russo satisfactorily deals with Hubert's escalating feud, the hair-splitting difference between secrets and lies, and the passing of an era in which fun-loving patrons could spend a balmy summer evening watching a delightful double-bill under the stars.

Benben does a nice job balancing Hubert's unbridled enthusiasm and immaturity, while the luminous McGovern is immensely appealing as the understated Edna. Larkin, who's appearing in his first film, is natural and unaffected. Hurt strives to make Turner more than merely earnest, but the role is rather one-dimensional.

Coolidge gives much of the film a bright, sunny exterior, yet allows it to unfold with an uncomfortable and inexorable feeling that tragedy is right around the corner, thereby leading to an emotional turn of events.

*

* "The Flamingo Rising" can be seen Sunday at 9 p.m. on CBS. The network has rated it TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children).

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