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TELEVISION REVIEW

Three films for yuletide: ho-ho-hum

November 19, 2005|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff Writer

With Thanksgiving less than a week away, it is, of course, now Christmas. You can feel it in the air or through the cable -- however you get your television: The holiday movies are a-coming. You will know them by their trimmings, the tinsel and holly, the seasonally tuned soundtracks, rife with flutes and bells. There will be snow, quite possibly, and themes of forgiveness and new beginnings, reformed character and restored faith -- not in the baby Jesus necessarily, but something unprovable or unseen, like Santa Claus or love -- and possibly the hand of Divine Providence itself will be employed to set things going or wrap them up. Hard hearts will soften, the sad will smile again, and so on and so forth.

Here are three new entrants in the holiday-classic sweepstakes: "Snow Wonder," which airs Sunday on CBS; "Silver Bells," coming a week from Sunday, also on CBS; and "Three Wise Guys," on USA Network, originally scheduled for Sunday, but now moved to Dec. 8, farther into the official yuletide. (We will "take 'em all at once, and have it over" as Scrooge wished to meet his ghostly advisors.) While none of them is especially bad, in the sense of failing to achieve a minimum level of professional competence, none is especially good, in the sense of being something one might feel the need to watch again -- which is, after all, the essential quality of the holiday classic -- or even watch once all the way to the end.

"Silver Bells," to take the last first, stars Anne Heche and Tate Donovan in a Hallmark Hall of Fame adaptation of a short novel by popular romance writer Luanne Rice, and, like a Hallmark card, it is a thing of prefabricated sentiment. He's a practical Christmas tree farmer whose artistically ambitious son (Michael Mitchell) runs away during their annual selling trip to Manhattan; she's the gallery curator who first befriends the son and ultimately the father. Like a Thomas Kincaid painting, "Silver Bells" twinkles resolutely, yet the mark of real life is nowhere upon it.

The story, though awash in deep feelings, is one of mathematical predictability and symmetrical precision, down to the fact that Heche is a widow and Donovan is a widower. (It is about all they have in common, but that does not stop Rice and her adapters from forcing them to fall in love.) Yet this is perhaps less a matter of cold calculation than because the author loves her characters too much to give them any critical imperfections.

Heche, as always, finds a real person to play, although that is perhaps not what this project actually requires. Also notably persuasive are Courtney Jines, who as Donovan's young daughter has the aspect of a pint-sized Glenne Headly, and Max Martini in a small role as a helpful policeman.

"Three Wise Guys" takes its title and essential premise -- the magi transformed into hoodlums -- from a story by Damon Runyon, who gets a "special recognition" credit here. In this version, written by soap opera scribe Lloyd "Lucky" Gold -- also the author of the 2003 USA gangster-themed holiday picture "Stealing Christmas" -- a semi-comical trio of enforcers arrive in Las Vegas to help slightly crooked casino owner Tom Arnold recover an incriminating computer disc. Along the way they meet pocket-picking showgirl Jodi Lyn O'Keefe who's pregnant with a child of uncertain parentage, and on the run from Arnold. Everyone winds up in a stable upon a midnight clear -- "There were no rooms at the Desert Inn," says O'Keefe -- beneath a shining north star. Gifts and gold and spice are not left out.

The film is loud and colorful in a workmanlike -- if occasionally logically sloppy -- way and full of biblical and seasonal references, from the Virgin Mary that Nelson orders in the casino bar to a Nevada town named Nazareth to a mysterious shepherd to the fact that the villain of the piece (the more villainous villain, that is) is "a little drummer boy" named, for no particular reason, Jacob Marley.

Of the titular trio, Judd Nelson is the smart, cynical one; Eddie McClintock, the lovable, dumb, domestic one; and Nick Turturro, the good-looking lady killer who's also dumb in his way until love opens his eyes. O'Keefe has what might be called the least thankless role here and makes a consistently good impression, but most everyone else -- including Katey Sagal as Arnold's cookie-baking wife and Arye Gross as his ticklish partner -- has been better elsewhere.

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