Fox's second foray into the made-for-TV-movie business is a fairly lightweight trifle that builds its almost-charming tale on an extremely shaky foundation.
"Hi Honey, I'm Dead," which will be on Channel 45 tonight at 8 o'clock, is yet another in the lengthy skein of life-after-death, supernatural-tinged stories whose sudden popularity some sociologist can undoubtedly explain as being caused by a deep, unfulfilled spiritual need that's developed in our country since the downfall of Jim Bakker.
This one is more of a twist on "It's a Wonderful Life" with a little "A Christmas Carol" thrown in, but we see it through some skewed Hollywood lens that can't get good and proper values into focus even when that's what it's trying to do.
It begins with Kevin Conroy playing Brad Stadler, a piece of ooze left over from the 1980s, a big-time, big-ego, no-values, look-at-me real estate developer whose resemblance to Donald Trump is only coincidental, be assured.
This guy treats his wife, played by Catherine Hicks, as if she were the latest model off the Stepford assembly line. His son, Josh, is nothing more than a matter to be penciled in on his schedule and erased when something more pressing -- meaning more lucrative -- comes up.
In case you hadn't noticed that the guy was a total sleaze, he then sets up a late-night rendezvous with a beautiful young thing high above the sparkling lights of the city in a cozy corner of his unfinished building, Stadler Plaza.
On his way up, the construction elevator goes on the fritz and plunges about 40 floors to the ground.
And there, at the behest of an angel played by stand-up comedian Paul Rodriguez, Stadler emerges. Only it's not good-
looking blond Conroy any more. It's short, dark-haired Curtis Armstrong, who played the schlumpy sidekick on "Moonlighting" and was a nerd in "Revenge of the Nerds" I and II. And one other detail not to be overlooked -- his name isn't Brad Stadler now, it's Arnold Pishkin.
Other than that, this is completely and totally Brad Stadler. He still thinks he's Stadler, he still knows everything Stadler knew, he still talks like Stadler. But, without Stadler's physical stature and name, instead of building real estate empires, Arnold Pishkin finds himself unloading concrete blocks from a truck.
Eventually, "Hi Honey, I'm Dead" gets around to letting Pishkin use Stadler's knowledge and tactics to succeed in the way his predecessor did, but, right off the bat, it lacks the creative cleverness that can make a reincarnation movie so fascinating.
Basically, that's because this version of reincarnation just wouldn't work. If we are reincarnated, it's got to be as a new person who maybe has a little unconscious help from what was learned by the old person. But to have the old person come back with a new body is not an operative thesis. Confusion and chaos would result.
That said, what is really going on in this picture? The message seems to be that if you are tall and blond and have a name like Stadler, you can stand astride American business as a colossus, but if you are short and nebbishy and have a name like Pishkin, you're going to have a tough time being taken seriously.
Huh? Watch "Wall Street Week" a few times. Guys like Carl Icahn are not exactly cover-of-GQ material, and the roster of names read off each week contains only a few that came over on the Mayflower. On some level, the portrayal of Pishkin seems to pander to a perceived anti-Semitism on the part of the viewing public.
In any case, the Pishkinized Stadler first learns what a jerk everyone thought Brad was and then hires on as a housekeeper for his widow so he can go about trying to re-make his previous life in a new, improved version. Though almost every move is predictable, there are some inevitably touching moments and a fine performance by Hicks, who rarely gets to play such a sensitive role.
"Hi Honey, I'm Dead" seems to mean well, and occasionally in its lunge for the heartstrings it brushes against a few, but its confused conceptual foundation, and its mixed bag of messages -- in the end, for instance, Stadler's hardball techniques are shown as the way to make money in business -- make it as oddly unsettling as an episode of Jim and Tammy Fay.
"Hi Honey, I'm Dead"
** A sleazy real estate developer dies and comes back the same guy, but not as sleazey because he's not as good-looking, and then goes about trying to re-make his life.
CAST: Curtis Armstrong, Catherine Hicks
TIME: Tonight at 9 p.m.
CHANNEL: Fox Channel 45 (WBFF)