Directed by Maria and Gabrielle C. Burton
Screenplay by Gabrielle B. Burton
With Ursula Burton, Wendie Malick, Harry Groener, Faye
Grant, Jill Eikenberry, Frank Gorshin, Shirley Jones, Cloris
Leachman, Seymour Cassel, Louise Fletcher
Rated PG; 119 minutes
Personal prejudice alert: When the press materials for a
film call it a "lighthearted comedic fable," it's
already got a strike against it in my book. Not that I don't
like a touch of whimsy now and then, but when it's a blast
of blarney wrapped in a cloak of oblivious do-gooderism and
spiritual uplift, curmudgeonly, critical me comes roaring
out of his den.
Manna From Heaven, the "fable" in question,
really wants to be liked. As the saying goes, its heart is
in the right place. It's also quite obviously a labor of love
on the part of the filmmakers, as well as a tribute to the
cinematic joys of Buffalo, N.Y. and a showcase for a number
of talented, too-little-seen actors to strut their stuff.
Too bad the overstuffed, sappy story that contains them takes
a full two hours to reach its unsurprising conclusion, and
that the whole thing looks like a made-for-TV movie you might
see on ABC Family or the PAX network.
Manna kicks off when a lower-middle-class Buffalo
neighborhood is inexplicably showered with $20 bills. Strangely
enough, only the residents of one particular house see this
literal windfall and grab the nearly $20,000 that has apparently
floated down from the sky. This extended family decides to
split the money among themselves despite some misgivings,
which are quickly shunted aside when saintly young Theresa,
who everyone says has a "direct pipeline to God,"
announces that they should keep the money.
Flash to the present, when Theresa (Ursula Burton), now a
nun, returns to Buffalo after being sent home from the tropics
for being too generous (aren't nuns supposed to be generous?
I guess they're not supposed to sell the convent's own furniture
to feed the poor.) Theresa becomes convinced, some thirty-odd
years later, that the money should be returned. Never mind
that they don't know who it really belongs to, nor that her
family has long since spent the money and that several have
gotten the hell out of Buffalo before they froze to death.
Theresa gathers them all and, through the sheer force of her
implacable, inescapable goodness, they decide to raise the
lost money by holding a dance contest and benefit.
This plot was a tad fresher when Shirley Temple first shook
her curly little head at the mean old banker who was about
to foreclose on Grandpa's farm, and was already starting to
show its age when Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland first said
"My dad's got a barn, let's put on a show!" But
Manna isn't troubled by such cynicism, no sirree. Hope
and faith will lead to charity, and the characters - who have
all encountered, to one degree or another, disappointments
and heartaches that the magical money did nothing to avert
- will be revived, restored and redeemed in trying to give
Well, as I said, this type of thing brings out the bitchy
cynic in me. But Manna doesn't provide much help in
countering that cynicism. All the character's problems seem
to boil down to their having a bad attitude and their being
unhappy with the inevitable compromises of growing up and
growing old. Those are pretty basic issues and character traits
to be overcome through a couple of weeks' work on a fundraiser.
But these filmmakers are selling uplift, and they're selling
it in bulk. Nobody can resist Shirley Temple, especially when
she's wearing a nun's habit.
To its credit, scattered throughout this sugary mess are
some sharp comedic scenes that give Manna's dream cast
of pros something to work with. Frank Gorshin and Shirley
Jones steal scenes right and left as a pair of aging con artists;
he gets to indulge in some of his famous mimicry and she gets
to play against her Mrs. Partridge sweetness. Jones also has
some lovely duets with Cloris Leachman as a cantankerous but
good-hearted grandma (is there any other kind in this type
Angular, sharp-tongued Wendie Malick (from the TV show "Just
Shoot Me"), as a blackjack dealer surprised by love,
livens up her scenes with the ace timing of a 1930s screwball
comedienne. Carole Lombard and Barbara Stanwyck are in some
heavenly movie palace cheering her on. She has fun in her
scenes with Jill Eikenberry ("L.A. Law,"), playing
a dowdy little mouse with dreams of domestic happiness, and
love interest Drew Pillsbury as a not-so-tough guy who thinks
he's a Bogart-esque private eye.
Song-and-dance man Harry Groener ("Buffy the Vampire
Slayer") and Faye Grant (from the miniseries "V")
also cut through some of the sugar, as a pair of eternal also-ran
competitive dancers who now run a run-down dancing school.
Their redemptions seem more earned than several of the others',
in part because they have come to terms with their own limitations.
I think I might like this film better if it didn't sell its
message quite so hard. In Manna's universe, the acts
of charity that Sister Theresa pressures everyone into act
like magical wish fulfillments. All the characters finally
get what they've always wanted, or didn't know they were missing.
But isn't charity supposed to be its own reward? Isn't the
act of doing something for someone else supposed to provide
uplift? A story that doles out lavish rewards to people who
already got a big, unexpected gift, and then wasted it, gives
happy endings a bad name.