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Mulvaneys' looks at life turned tragic

Sunday, April 07, 2002

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Blessed with a talented cast and heart-shattering story, Lifetime's "We Were the Mulvaneys" (9 p.m. tomorrow) rises above the trappings of the routine TV movie. It's the story of a family broken by shame, pride, selfishness and good intentions gone awry. But mostly it's a story about family.

TV REVIEW

"We Were the Mulvaneys"
When: 9 p.m. tomorrow on Lifetime.
Starring: Blythe Danner, Beau Bridges.

Based on the novel by Joyce Carol Oates, a selection of Oprah Winfrey's Book Club, "We Were the Mulvaneys" is narrated by Judd Mulvaney (Thomas Guiry), youngest of the four children born to Corinne (Blythe Danner) and Michael (Beau Bridges).

It's the early '70s and the Mulvaneys live in upstate New York on High Point Farm. Their time there is indeed a high point in the family history. "Storybook people in a storybook house," Judd calls them.

The scenes of familial collegiality - pride and joy Marianne (Tammy Blanchard) at breakfast with her twin brother Patrick (Jacob Pitts) and high school jock Mike Jr. (Mark Famiglietti) - are so warm and dewy, it's almost too much. Yet the film never goes too far.

A Sunday morning worship service is followed by dinner at the local country club, followed by a game of football at the farm, the boys still in ties and jackets, Marianne in her dress as mom tries to avoid the football.

Father Michael worked hard and ultimately started his own successful roofing business. Mother Corinne dabbles in antiques while running the household. They dote on their children, especially Marianne, a beauty with a good heart, a devout spirit and strong religious convictions.

"It's like God is trusting us with something we're probably not good enough to deserve," Michael says. "Ah, we Mulvaneys, joined at the heart."

And they are. The film sets a believable tone for this tight-knit group, with Judd's well-written narration sealing the bond.

"We were a family in which everything that happened was precious and everything that was precious was stored in memory and everyone had a history," he says. "That is, until the event when everything came apart for us and was never again put back together in the same way."

It's not giving anything away to say the event is Marianne's rape, which is handled as tactfully as that horrible act can be. Bad tidings are telegraphed from the beginning of the film, which actually begins four years into the future as Judd procures a gun for Patrick, who's about to seek revenge.

The rape's aftermath makes up the bulk of the story, a tragic tale that would do Shakespeare proud.

When the family ties begin to unravel, the film also starts to come apart. When one of the Mulvaneys joins a cultish co-op, the film threatens to devolve into the kind of soap opera malarkey familiar to anyone who's watched more than a handful of TV movies. It wouldn't be surprising if large chunks of Oates' book were sacrificed in this section, adding to the abruptness of several plot developments.

Working from a script written by Joyce Eliason, Peter Silverman and Nancy Dalton Silverman, director Peter Werner manages to keep the film from spiraling completely out of control and ultimately brings it back to a place of credibility.

Danner and Bridges make you believe they're a couple that's been in love for years, living a dream life with their happy brood. Both have a difficult task. Some viewers won't be able to comprehend Michael's distance from his daughter after the rape and Corinne's oblivious disregard for her children's whereabouts. In the end, it seems mostly plausible due in large part to the empathetic portrayals by Bridges and Danner.

Blanchard, who won a 2001 Emmy for her role as young Judy Garland in ABC's "Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows," proves her star turn a year ago wasn't a fluke. Indeed, the great joy of "We Were the Mulvaneys" is that all the actors portraying Mulvaneys fit their roles. You believe them as a cohesive unit, which makes the family's splintering all the more tragic.


You can reach Rob Owen at rowen@post-gazette.com Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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