As grown-ups watch Martin Short snuffle, snort and grimace in the opening moments of "A Simple Wish," they are likely to compose a fervent wish of their own: Please, oh please, get me through this movie!
The kids may warm to Short's genial turn as a hapless fairy godmother. Their parents will find him ceaselessly irritating, like someone in the next lunch booth who sneezes through the entire meal. Short is capable of hysterical caricature. With luck, one day he'll find the right movie vehicle. Here, his entire comic repertoire consists of making his face look like a prune, all puckered and squinty, and delivering not terribly clever lines under his breath.
He's not helped by Jeff Rothberg's script, which has all the appearances of a first draft, the one without certain essentials: a plot, for example, and wit. If your comic vision involves spitting and burping, it's time to call rewrite.
The slim thread of a story involves 8-year-old Anabel (Mara Wilson, the title character in "Matilda"), who summons the help of a fairy godmother to help her widowed father, Oliver (Robert Pastorelli, Eldon on "Murphy Brown"), get a role in a Broadway musical so they won't have to leave New York. Short, as Murray, a minimally capable godmother, shows up to mess things up before the predictable ending.
The central premise of "A Simple Wish" is having a man as a fairy godmother, but the film never bothers to address the matter. It never explains who Short is or why he became a fairy godmother or why he's so bad at it. This is a film that runs away from comic possibility rather than plowing it.
Instead, "A Simple Wish" continues through a minimally developed plot involving Kathleen Turner as an excommunicated fairy godmother who hopes to steal the wands of all her former colleagues, giving her a monopoly on wish fulfillment.
With this movie, Turner's acting career continues cascading downward. She looks like a voluptuous Elizabeth Montgomerysqueezed into Gloria Swanson's rejected gowns. Even with those arching eyebrows forever rising and falling, Turner isn't the least bit frightening. She's likable, actually, so she doesn't create the tension this fantasy needs.
The best idea in the movie is a throwaway. Pastorelli, as self-consciously lovable as it gets, hopes to land a part in a "Les Miserables"-like production of "A Tale of Two Cities." He wants to be Sidney Carton, whose final number, before the guillotine, includes the lyric, "It is a far, far better thing I do." It's a dead-on send-up of Broadway, both ludicrous and plausible. I couldn't resist the simple wish that this bit of wit had found itself in a better movie.
'A Simple Wish'
Starring Martin Short, Kathleen Turner, Mara Wilson and Robert Pastorelli
Directed by Michael Ritchie
Released by Universal Pictures Rated PG (mild violence)
Sun score: **
Pub Date: 7/11/97