Manna From Heaven

Review by Adam Blair

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 it back.

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 of movie?).

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.

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