Unlike most movies that insist on being cute, cloying or campy when they try out the fantasy-with-meaning genre, NBC's "Guess Who's Coming for Christmas?" does it right.
The only way to make a movie like this work, as films from "It's a Wonderful Life" to "E.T." to "Field of Dreams" have proven, is to play it straight. Led by the superb work of Richard Mulligan in the lead, this cast and crew keep the proper tone from beginning to end.
Unfortunately, in between beginning and end are some rather thin moments because this undeniably charming movie doesn't have quite enough story to sustain its two-hour length. "Guess Who's Coming for Christmas?" will be on Channel 2 (WMAR) Sunday night at 9 o'clock.
Mulligan plays George Walters, the lovable eccentric of the small town of Grovers Mill, which seems to be located somewhere in the generic Sunbelt. As we see in an early scene, Walters is the type of guy who dresses up as Pilgrim on Thanksgiving and parades around the neighborhood with his grandson. His wife is played by Barbara Barrie who plays a role of putting up with eccentrics while maintaining dignity better than anyone.
Walters also hangs out at the town coffee shop, swapping lies with two old buddies, played by Paul Dooley and James McEachin. One Thanksgiving, he happens to run into a stranger, one Arnold Zimmerman, a harried, harassed traveling businessman played by Beau Bridges, whose vehicle has broken down and stranded him in this town.
With his classic small-town values, Walters ushers Zimmerman into his family hardware store to find the part he needs to be on his way. It turns out, as Zimmerman explains matter of factly, that that's not just down the road apiece. It's to the planet Zabar. Zimmerman lives on the planet Corapeake but works on Zabar developing shopping centers. He's a type-A alien.
Walters doesn't believe it until, after watching Zimmerman disappear into the woods clutching his spare part, he sees his spaceship zoom across the sky. Eventually, Walters gets his two buddies in on it and they begin work on a landing pad for Zimmerman's spaceship. Word of their venture gets out and, inevitably, the town folk think Walters' eccentricity has finally gone over the edge to genuine craziness.
"Guess Who's Coming for Christmas?" is filled with clear and direct references, from the similarity of the town's name to the locale of "Our Town" to the alien of "E.T." to the construction project built on the faith it will attract the ethereal beings of "Field of Dreams" to the veneration of small-town values of "It's a Wonderful Life."
Indeed, the film is essentially a paean from executive producer Beth Polson, who is also given story credit, to her own home town in North Carolina, which happens to be named Corapeake. It's too bad the movie couldn't have been filmed there as some of the California locales used look more like Spielburgian suburbia than small-town Americana.
Look, you know after 15 minutes the answer to the title's question of who is showing up for the big holiday. And in between the set-up of the characters and the town that's threatened with a slow death by malls and interstates and emigration, and the inevitable and predictable payoff, which includes a "Wonderful Life" quality speech by Mulligan, "Guess Who's Coming for Christmas" doesn't take enough twists and turns. You might say that it's a little too much like driving on an interstate instead of some interesting back country road.
But what is there is of top quality, well-acted, nicely written, sensitively directed. Just know going in that "Guess Who's Coming for Christmas?" is going to provide you with some tasty morsels, not a fully satisfying holiday feast.
"Guess Who's Coming for Christmas?"
*** A small-town eccentric risks ridicule to help out a harried alien whose spaceship breaks down nearby during the holiday season.
CAST: Richard Mulligan, Beau Bridges
TIME: Sunday at 9 p.m.
CHANNEL: NBC Channel 2 (WMAR)