"Thanksgiving DAY" is like a nice, shiny luxury car, equipped with all the options, that just happens to be missing its spark plugs. No matter how comfortable the seats, how fine the finish, the thing still won't start up and take you anywhere. Ultimately, it's just a very expensive piece of junk.
So NBC's "Thanksgiving Day" has Mary Tyler Moore as appealing as ever, Tony Curtis crazier than ever, a promising arena in black comedy, an interesting idea in a wacky, dysfunctional family trying to make it through the holidays, but, despite all that, it never gets up and running. It just lies there like week-old stuffing.
The film, which will be on Channel 2 (WMAR) at 9 o'clock tonight, opens with the fowl holiday once again upon the Schloss family, which is headed by Tony Curtis, kingpin of the famed Schloss glove company, who has invited his best customer to Thanksgiving dinner.
Also showing up for the meal are ne'er-do-well son Randy, played by Chicago radio personality Jonathon Brandmeier, who's working too hard here, and off-at-college daughter Barbara, played by Curtis' attractive and personable real daughter, Kelly. If the Schloss family is lucky, shut-in son Michael (Andy Hirsch) might tear himself away from the TV long enough to take in the meal.
The funny part is that best customer and wife don't like turkey, so Paula Schloss, Mary Tyler Moore looking and acting as fine as you can remember, and longtime Schloss servant Richard (Cal Gibson) are supposed to get some roast beef on the table. They forget. The pressure's too much for dear old Dad and he keels over while slicing the big bird.
Things just get wackier as Randy, who's got a couple of kids and an endless line of bimbo girlfriends, proceeds to gamble away the family fortune, Barbara announces that she is gay and introduces everyone to her obnoxious lover, and Ned Monk, the richest guy in town (Detroit) played by Joe Bologna, makes a play for his old sweetheart Paula.
All along are various quirks and foibles, funny stuff at funerals, silly stuff at the club, slapstick on the golf course. But it all just sits there. It's like watching a stand-up comedian who seems to be a nice guy doing material that really isn't that bad but who just can't connect with the audience. It makes you uncomfortable. You want to turn your head away.
Eventually, "Thanksgiving Day" diagnoses its own ills. In its last half hour, it finally starts moving, but it's no longer the luxury car, it's more of a regular family sedan.
By that point, the Schloss clan has lost its fortune and the boys have joined in a catfish-raising venture. You find yourself touched by this, rooting for them. And you realize that what "Thanksgiving Day" failed to do in the beginning was make you care about these characters before turning them into comic foils.
If somehow the structure had been reversed, if you had gotten to know these people before the script started poking fun at them, "Thanksgiving Day" could have had you cruising along, hitting the black comedy as if it were some unexpected and hilarious pothole.
Trying to build the movie in the opposite direction is much more difficult, requiring comedy that is so funny you can't help but laugh. And this "Thanksgiving Day" needs several more helpings before it gets that funny.
** After the head of the Schloss clan drops dead at the Thanksgiving feast one year, gatherings around the traditional turkey are landmarks in this odd family's descent into comedic chaos.
CAST: Mary Tyler Moore, Tony Curtis, Jonathon Brandmeier
TIME: Tonight at 9 p.m.
CHANNEL: NBC Channel 2 (WMAR)