My Beautiful Son
directed by Paul Seed
(Showtime, 2001)

British actress Julie Walters has two Oscar nominations, for Educating Rita (1983) and Billy Elliot (2000). She has a resume full of other nominations and a full mantel's worth of awards for her work in theater and film. Olympia Dukakis, besides claiming a presidential candidate for a cousin, also has a raft of honors and an Oscar in her house for Moonstruck (1987).

Then there's Paul Reiser, creator of Mad About You, the NBC comedy, and a six-time Emmy nominee. Add George Wendt (from Cheers) and a script by Tim Kazurinsky, who was with Saturday Night Live in its '80s heyday, and there were some high hopes for My Beautiful Son.

But billing it as a comedy?

Let's see: This is a film about a Jewish psychiatrist in Manhattan who discovers, shortly after being diagnosed with leukemia, that he was given up for adoption by a Catholic teenager from Liverpool. Dr. Jerry Lipman (Reiser) needs a bone marrow transplant, so he heads off to Liverpool to meet his birth family and, not incidentally, try to save his own life.

Not a roll-on-the-floor scenario.

My Beautiful Son, taken from the pet name Esther Lipman (Dukakis) calls Jerry, can't decide whether it wants to laugh at the Liverpudlians or laugh with them. There's a drug-addict brother, a brother who's verbally abused by his wife and a mean-spiritedness in Jerry that allows him to complain about his English relatives' tiny home.

If it had just dropped some attempts at forced comedy (which make Reiser sound exactly like his Paul Buchman character in Mad About You), My Beautiful Son may have had more time to spend ruminating about things like, What makes a "family"? What makes a "mother"?

Instead, it tries to pack those issues, along with moral quandaries like white lies, into a neat package with a shaky Liverpool accent.

Reiser, interestingly, is much more affecting when he's doing the serious stuff here than the lighthearted, quirky stuff. He's not quite up to snuff with the rest of the cast, but he's better than I expected.

What makes A Beautiful Son roll is the performance of Walters as Sheila Fitzpatrick, the woman who was forced to give up Jerry for adoption when she was 16. Her buried feelings of guilt and shame, coupled with her astonishment that her adult son has found her, force their way through Walters' rounded features first hesitantly, and then full-flood.

Her work raises the bar for everyone around her and turns what otherwise would have been a forgettable film into something else, a film that, however flawed and weepy, still tries in fits and starts to say something about the ties of love.

- Rambles
written by Jen Kopf
published 5 July 2003