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To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday

The problem with turning plays into movies is that plays are, practically by definition, all about talk. And not just any talk — calculated, symbolic, broad dialogue that's very carefully constructed to jump off the stage and capture a live audience. Sure, sometimes that stage style can make the transition to the big screen successfully (Glengarry Glen Ross is a good — if still quite stylized — example). But too often, plays-turned-movies become films like To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday (1996): slow, talky excuses for actors to emote like crazy. Try as he might, screenwriter David E. Kelley (he of "Ally McBeal" and "The Practice" fame, as well as being Mr. Michelle Pfeiffer) can't turn Michael Brady's play into more than a long string of distraught conversations about love, sanity, and responsibility. What little action there is revolves around David Lewis (Peter Gallagher) running around in the sand under the moonlight frolicking with the "ghost" of his beautiful, reckless dead wife, Gillian (Pfeiffer), while his sister-in-law Esther (Kelley regular Kathy Baker) wrings her hands over the fate of his teenage daughter Rachel (Claire Danes). David, you see, is reluctant to truly let Gillian go (per usual in TV and the movies, two years seems to be far too long to grieve a dead spouse), and his trouble separating reality from fantasy is taking its toll on Rachel's stability. Meanwhile, Rachel's sexpot friend Cindy (Laurie Fortier) pulls an American Beauty on Esther's husband Paul (Bruce Altman), and Esther and Paul's single friend Kevin (Wendy Crewson; yup, a woman named Kevin) writhes with embarrassment over the couple's attempt to fix her up with David, who's very obviously still in love with his wife. Predictably, plenty of dramatic confrontations ensue... which is when the one thing the movie has going for it — the stars' acting ability — kicks in. Danes is simply fantastic as the conflicted Rachel, giving what could have been a bratty, disconnected character true heart and vulnerability. And Gallagher is surprisingly good as David — you certainly can't blame him for wanting to hang on to a gorgeous, spontaneous woman like Gillian, but you can see him fighting with himself for giving in to his fantasy of her. The weakest link is Baker, who paints Esther too broadly for the contained world of the film. In the end, Gillian has the feel of an above-average TV movie — something not-quite-ready-for-prime-time, but not Lifetime dreck either. Columbia TriStar's To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday DVD includes a strong full-frame transfer (1.33:1) and clear Dolby Digital 2.0 audio. Features include English and French subtitles, and trailers for Gillian, The Age of Innocence, and My Life. Keep-case.
—Betsy Bozdech

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