Doughy script fails to rise to level of 'Heart' stars

November 28, 1994|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

Ann-Margret has the lead in "Following Her Heart," an NBC made-for-TV movie airing tonight at 9 on WMAR (Channel 2). But it's George Segal, in a supporting role, who steals the show.

Yes, that George Segal, the actor who was the king of big screen romantic comedy 20 years ago, but who seems to have done nothing but play the banjo, star in failed TV pilots and put on weight the last 15 years.

"Following Her Heart" is the story of a widow named Ingalill (Ann-Margret) finding new life on a tour bus full of widows and widowers headed for Nashville. Segal plays Harry, one of Ingalill's fellow travelers.

Everyone on the bus is more than 50 years old, and that's clearly the audience at which this occasionally pleasant but ultimately too-too predictable little film is targeted.

Ingalill is a plain woman who had lived most of her life in Fargo, N.D., with an oaf of a husband. She always dreamed of a singing career in Nashville, but it was only a dream in her otherwise drab life. When her husband dies, Ingalill decides to take life by the horns and buy a bus ticket to the Athens of country music.

Just in case anyone out in TV Land doesn't get the message that her husband's death is the event that allows Ingalill to find a new life, the incredibly heavy-handed script provides us with a scene showing a parakeet taking flight from its cage.

Part of what's outside Ingalill's cage is Harry, a free-spirited, high school art teacher from Fargo. It is never clear how or why such a free spirit as Harry -- or other fun folks, such as the widow played by Brenda Vaccaro -- came to live and thrive in Fargo, which is depicted here as about as inviting as sixth-century Finland in January.

But let's not quibble with what is clearly a nickel-and-dime script. The bucks went to the actors and director Lee Grant.

As Harry, Segal is a life force, and his performance as a funny, carefree grandfather will surely remind some viewers of how marvelous he was in such films as "A Touch of Class" or "Bloom in Love."

In a scene built around the unlikely pair of Ingalill and Harry being forced to share a motel room, Segal not only plays with a similar and famous scene from "It Happened One Night," but improves upon it in some ways. It's one of the moments when this film escapes its rigid, unimaginative structure and message to become a bit of a delight.

Such moments are rare, however.

At its best, "Following Her Heart" has the fuzzy and cliched warmth of a Hallmark greeting card. There's also a lot of the Harlequin romance formula at work here: a cold-hearted husband, a will that provides for the widow's continued impoverishment despite her late husband's wealth, the secret dreams of stardom and fulfillment by a timid woman, and a Prince Charming in the figure of Harry.

With Ann-Margret, Segal and Vaccaro as actors and Grant as director, the overwhelming feeling is that there's a king's ransom of talent assembled here, but it was sold out by a script so poor it qualifies for welfare.

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