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A streamlined 'Manna' would satisfy

April 04, 2003|Kevin Thomas | Times Staff Writer

"Manna From Heaven" has much warmth, an array of veteran players, some in roles of substance and dimension, and outstanding Buffalo, N.Y., locations, but it suffers from an overcomplicated plot, an overpopulated cast, a lot of corny humor and artificial contrivance, topped by a sluggish pace.

Filmmaking sisters Gabrielle C. and Maria Burton should have taken a hard look at the busy, murkily plotted script by their mother, Gabrielle B. Burton. Rigorous rewrites for clarity and economy would have enabled them to bring in the film at a good half-hour less than its 119 minutes. Feel-good comedy demands a light touch and a lively tempo -- and an authentic, inspired sense of humor doesn't hurt. The Burtons' hearts are in the right place, but they need to get more tough-minded.

The film opens in what looks to be the '50s in a shabby blue-collar Buffalo neighborhood. The back door of a van flies open and showers the street in front of the modest Annunciata residence with $20,000 in cash. Mama Annunciata is having nothing to do with it, but little Theresa speaks up and assures the family and some friends that it's God's gift, which ends up divided six ways.

We shift to what seems to be the present. Theresa (Ursula Burton) has grown up to become a nun so good-hearted that she's continually getting in trouble. It's Ash Wednesday, and the monsignor (Vincent O'Neill) tells her it's time to shape up. She figures the perfect penance would be to gather everybody who shared in that long-ago windfall and pay it back in donations to a worthy cause.

Annunciata relative Dottie (Jill Eikenberry), a beautician, gets her car-dealer beau (Seymour Cassel) to provide a vintage Lincoln convertible for a raffle to be held at a magnificent Buffalo movie palace, Shea's Theater. There will also be a waltz contest, the idea of Annunciata brother Tony (Harry Groener) and his wife, Rita (Faye Grant), who aspired to be the next Fred and Ginger but settled for running a local dance studio. They see the competition as their last chance to grab the spotlight.

Among those expected to repay their good fortune are charming, mutually devoted con artists Ed and Bunny (Frank Gorshin and Shirley Jones), with Ed up to no good; Rita's crabby mother, Helen (Cloris Leachman), who experiences a renewed sense of hope as the raffle ticket-selling progresses; and Inez (Wendie Malick), a no-nonsense casino dealer returning from Winnemucca, Nev., who develops a yen for a handsome Secret Service agent (Drew Pillsbury). These five pros are persuasive, witty and endearing, and are the film's strongest assets, along with the splendid Buffalo locales, which are rich in architectural gems (as anyone who has visited the city knows). In smaller roles, there are sharp moments supplied by the equally reliable Austin Pendleton, Louise Fletcher and Shelley Duvall. With "Manna From Heaven" the Burtons, in their third feature, serve their actors better than their audience.


'Manna From Heaven'

MPAA rating: PG for language and some sexual references

Times guidelines: Occasionally mildly risque but basically family fare

Frank Gorshin...Ed

Shirley Jones...Bunny

Cloris Leachman...Helen

Wendie Malick...Inez

Drew Pillsbury...Mac/Bake

Ursula Burton...Sister Theresa

A Five Sisters Productions presentation. Directors Gabrielle C. Burton and Maria Burton. Producers Charity, Gabrielle C., Jennifer, Maria and Ursula Burton. Co-producers Gabrielle B. and Roger Burton. Screenplay Gabrielle B. Burton. Cinematographer Ed Slattery. Music Timothy Jones, James T. Sale. Costumes Geraldine Duskin. Production designer Linda Louise Sheets. Running time: 1 hour, 59 minutes.

In general release.

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