Angie, Baby!

This is not your mother’s Angela Lansbury. In fact, when a generation that faithfully watched Murder, She Wrote every Sunday night for 12 years gets a look at the woman they came to know as mystery writer and crime solver Jessica Fletcher in The Blackwater Lightship , they will not believe their eyes. The fact that this next presentation on the prestigious Hallmark Hall of Fame , scheduled to be broadcast Feb. 4 on CBS, is better than any feature film shown so far in 2004 is due in no small part to Ms. Lansbury’s artistry. But what she looks like in the role of a crusty old Irish biddy saddled with the responsibility of taking care of a grandson dying of AIDS … well, get ready to be aghast, then amused, then deeply moved to the bottom of your heart. From the glam honky-tonk queen who terrorized Judy Garland in The Harvey Girls to the pie-making hag in Broadway’s Sweeney Todd , versatility was always her middle name. With no cosmetics, flour-sack dresses under battered cardigans, two hideous wigs that are a far cry from Mame and wrinkles that took hours in the makeup department, in this 218th production of the Hallmark Hall of Fame , Ms. Lansbury is merely marvelous.

She is not alone. Based on the novel by Colm Toibin, The Blackwater Lightship is an intelligently written, beautifully photographed, intensely emotional, creatively challenging and physically demanding work with a uniformly excellent cast of superb actors, directed with great sensitivity and skill by the estimable John Erman, whose many fine credits include Roots and An Early Frost . The story focuses on three generations of Irish women whose strained relationships have soured through decades of misunderstandings, now reluctantly reunited by a family tragedy. Ms. Lansbury plays Granny, a tough old bird as briny as the rocks on the cliffs outside her boarding house on the Irish coast. Dianne Wiest is her daughter Lily, a self-centered businesswoman who lives in a fancy house in Wexford and has always placed material success above the needs of her family. Gina McKee is Lily’s daughter Helen, who felt neglected and abandoned as a child after her father died of cancer and Lily left her and her brother Declan to be raised by their Granny. Helen hasn’t spoken to her mother for 10 years. Suddenly, they all find themselves back in the rugged seaside village of Blackwater, dominated by childhood memories of the lighthouse on the beach constructed from parts of a ship. As foreign to each other as snowbound strangers in a mountain lodge, the three women, estranged from each other by miles and temperaments, are forced to resolve their differences and declare a truce when Declan is revealed to be in the final stages of AIDS and desperately in need of some tender, loving care. Lily is horrified and, in her selfish way, furious because nobody told her that her son was even gay. Helen is overcome with rage and helplessness. But it is Granny who opens her house and her heart to her difficult and perplexing daughter Lily, her granddaughter Helen, her grandson Declan (a piercing performance by terrific Dublin newcomer Keith McErlean), and his two dedicated and implacable gay friends, Larry (Brian F. O’Byrne) and Paul (Sam Robards), who invade the tranquillity of the Irish countryside as Declan’s primary caregivers. Granny has never known a homosexual in her life, and every time a car drives up to her stone cottage by the sea, she drags her arthritic legs to the window, parts the curtains and sighs, “Here comes another one of them.” But she’s been through the hardscrabble school, and nothing much rattles her cage. This is not your sweet little “Land sakes alive, luv, I smell the porridge burnin’ on me stove” Irish granny, and Ms. Lansbury doesn’t play her that way. She’s prickly as an alligator pear, suspicious of strangers, allergic to modern conveniences, never suffers fools easily and refuses to even own a telephone. But when life kicks her in the shins, she puts the kettle on and goes to work applying Band-Aids and good, common horse sense. “Nothin’ shocks me any more,” she declares to the whiners in her kitchen. “When you been through the life I’ve had, there’s nothing left you haven’t seen.” It’s thrilling to watch this versatile actress playing an 84-year-old trout with a pluperfect Irish accent (Ms. Lansbury is half-Irish and lives part of the year in County Cork), making beds, ironing linen and slicing bread like she was excavating for the pyramids.

Quietly, reservedly and with the ultimate moment-by-moment naturalism of real life, the script by Shane Connaughton strips away the defenses of a house full of disparate characters, revealing the humanity beneath each one until you feel like they’re all old friends. Mr. Connaughton was Oscar-nominated for his memorable screenplay, My Left Foot . He knows what he’s doing. There isn’t a false note in his characters’ actions, feelings or dialogue. In the end, Granny’s strength, resilience and indomitable spirit rub off on the others. Lily and Helen peel away their resentments until they reach the core of their mother-daughter problems, while Granny’s acceptance of the changing dynamics around her leads to some traditional surrenders of her own. By the time everyone says goodbye, she’s growing quite fond of her new cell phone, and one of the gay guys is redecorating her house. You laugh. You cry. You are enriched by the positive ways people who never dreamed their lives would lead them to this predicament learn to cope and join together and make their differences work. Unlike most of the first-run movies that are made today, The Blackwater Lightship has a central, life-affirming theme: We all make mistakes, but forgiveness is the thing that defines love and leads to peace. What is a film this simultaneously heartbreaking and life-affirming doing on television?

Good Golly, Polly

Elsewhere, 2004 is off to a rigorous halt. The moronically bad Along Came Polly is another attempt by the gifted Jennifer Aniston to prove that there is life after Friends . Don’t you love the way she stays glued to Friends for the money while doing it? She can act, but her choices at upward mobility are depressingly bleak. Ben Stiller plays an anally retentive nerd named Reuben, a risk-assessment expert for an insurance firm who marries a trashy real-estate agent (Debra Messing, from Will and Grace , who is also desperate to move out of sitcom hell). On their honeymoon in St. Barts, she runs away with a naked scuba diver. Eschewing the gift of freedom, and with an expensive new house in Montclair, N.J. to pay for, Reuben reluctantly follows the advice of his obstreperous, obnoxious and obese best friend, Sandy (Philip Seymour Hoffman, natch), and plays the field. At his first party he meets Polly, a flaky waitress (the flaky Ms. Aniston) who lives in a junk heap full of packing crates with a blind ferret. He’s an uptight jerk who plans every move to avoid spontaneity and live by the rules; she’s a flaming kook who lives on the edge and changes the rules every five minutes. He’s never met anyone so dangerous; she’s never dated a straight, normal, clean-cut Ralph Lauren suit in her entire vie . He’s a Babbit, she’s a beatnik. He’s a conservative square, she’s a happy hedonist dancing on the lip of the volcano.

There’s no reason for a second date, but if the characters behaved with any degree of logic, there would be no movie. So five minutes of plot stretches into two hours of shtick, while the audience is slam-dunked by a revolting procession of the flatulence jokes Mr. Stiller is famous for. He suffers from irritable-bowel syndrome, so the movie gets a punishing amount of pleasure out of staging whole scenes in various toilets. Imagine the predicament when he goes to her apartment after a dinner of hot, spicy Moroccan food and runs out of toilet paper. It’s all supposed to be unconventional, but it seems more contrived than anything else. Like the rest of today’s alleged comedies that are never funny, this one pretends to be hip, but lacks every semblance of intelligence and depends on the basest common instincts in the kindergarten I.Q. for laughs. In the end, Mr. Stiller is back on the St. Barts beach butt-naked, having tossed his inhibitions away along with his trunks. So why does he saunter into the sea in a camera angle that can only be described as rear view, in more ways than one? Along Came Polly is offensive and stupid, but it doesn’t even have the guts to go all the way. If you’re going to insult the audience, don’t be wimpy and irritating. Stop screwing around: Give us a real take-home insult we can talk about later.

Punk’d

What’s an Ashton Kutcher? I’m damned if I know (or care), but I was grateful when a fellow critic explained at the screening of a diabolically asinine dud called The Butterfly Effect : “He’s a talking magazine cover who appeared in a lousy movie called Dude, Where’s My Car? , sleeps with older women and wears more mascara than Michael Jackson.” Clearly, he’s a plastic creation of the Hollywood P.R. machine. At the screening of The Butterfly Effect , various exponents of that machine awarded prizes to teenage members of the audience who could call out the answers to such questions as “What is Demi Moore’s favorite drink?”, “Who can supply the names of Demi’s three children?” and “Name the last woman Ashton Kutcher slept with before Demi.” Would you believe they actually knew the answers? Clearly, he is on his way to more adulation as he begs to rise above the mantle of clueless toy boy. Yeah, sure. And very soon, I will be running for mayor of Palm Beach.

In this miserable lug nut of a movie, Mr. Kutcher can block out sordid memories of the past-which is a good thing, since at age 7, the father of a girlfriend named Kayleigh forced him to pose nude for his kiddie porn collection, and at 13, Kayleigh’s psychotic brother Tommy burned his dog alive with lighter fluid. Somewhere between traumas, he was almost strangled to death by his own father, who was a patient in a mental institution. Now a psych major with a 400-pound roommate, he can improve the past by bringing back his sordid memories, like the time he blew up a mailbox with dynamite just as a young mother was opening it with a baby in her arms. So he goes back and blows off his own arms. Later, he ends up a meat sandwich in a depraved prison inhabited only by salivating homosexual motorcycle freaks. One minute he returns to the old town to confront Kayleigh and her pedophile father, and she commits suicide. The next minute she’s waking up in his bed at the frat house. From pearls and the basic black Diane von Furstenberg dress, Kayleigh (Amy Smart) turns into a heroin-addicted prostitute with a knife scar across her face, while her freaked-out brother Tommy (William Lee Scott) changes from mass murderer to a GQ preppie planning a campus awareness dance. Not one second of this bilge makes a lick of sense. It seems to have been written with a No. 2 soft lead pencil on Big Chief tablet paper. Trying to describe it further is a pointless puzzler not unlike examining the inside of a damaged Rubik’s cube. Much easier to talk about Ashton Kutcher: His whole career seems to focus on giving interviews about how famous he is. Now he wants to be taken seriously. Having no discernible talent doesn’t seem to be a deterrent. After The Butterfly Effect , I know what it means to get punk’d.