TV preview: Acting excels in 'The Boys Next Door,' an innocuous human tale from Hallmark Hall of Fame. Sweeps Relief


"The Boys Next Door" is a light-as-air trifle, a pleasant enough comedy-drama that introduces viewers to the lives of four mentally challenged men living together in a group home.

Arnold is a manic depressive who beats rugs, is a little too open to suggestion and keeps threatening to move to Russia. Norman has a thing for keys and doughnuts. Lucien, who functions at the level of a 5-year-old, hates loud noises but loves Spider-Man. And Barry is a paranoid schizophrenic golf pro with an idiot for a father.

If the idea of spending two hours with these guys doesn't appeal to you, then don't bother watching "Boys," airing at 9 p.m. Sunday on WJZ (Channel 13), as the latest offering from the "Hallmark Hall of Fame."

These four men don't do anything to change the world, theirs or ours. They don't overcome their handicaps to become pillars of society. Their innocence doesn't change those around them.

What they do is survive and, in their own way, prosper. And the message this movie delivers to its audience is simple, straightforward and valuable: There is value in every human being, no matter his or her abilities. Fail to recognize that, and you're the one with the problem.

It's hard not to like this film, but it's also hard not to think it could have done more with what it had.

"The Boys Next Door," based on Tony Griffin's off-Broadway play, may be the most uneventful two hours to which "Hallmark" has ever had its name attached -- something of a comedown for a showcase that over the years has presented some of television's finest drama.

Still, the play is what it is, a showcase for a half-dozen talented actors to display their skills. There are more painful ways to spend a Sunday evening.

Nathan Lane, a much-loved stage actor best known to the public as the voice of Timon the Meerkat in Disney's "The Lion King," plays Norman with a smile that rarely fades. Although he maybe the most visible of the four main characters -- he's certainly the most lovable, and he's the only one allowed to have a girlfriend (Mare Winningham, in a performance we've seen from plenty of other actresses) -- his role also may be the easiest to pull off.

More complex is Michael Jeter's Arnold, whose refusal to keep up with his medication makes him the most likely to explode. You can feel him trying to maintain some control over his emotions, and one of the few times he lets them run free, an impromptu dance of celebration in a grocery store, is one of the play's finest moments.

Robert Sean Leonard's Barry, at once the most confusing and most accessible of the four (he's the closest to "normal"), seems woefully underdeveloped. His conflict with his father, as well as his seemingly inexplicable belief that he can teach people to play golf, hints at a character with a lot more to offer than what is seen on-screen. I wish we could have seen more of, and understood more about, Barry.

Courtney B. Vance plays Lucien and manages to imbue this man-child with dignity that never seems contrived. His appearance before a state Senate investigating committee, however, may leave audiences scratching their heads: Why he's there is never made clear, and the questions he's asked don't seem to be headed anywhere. You keep wondering why the social worker he's with doesn't say something.

That social worker, Jack, is played by Tony Goldwyn (he was the heavy in "Ghost"). Ostensibly, the movie is about his total attachment to these four men. So devoted is he, in fact, that his marriage is suffering. "Those sweet, dear, damaged guys are eating up your life," his wife tells him.

But Jack's character is really ancillary to the story, there pretty much to provide some sort of shared conflict (he decides to get another job, and the latter-half of "Boys" has him trying to put off delivering the news). His only real moment to shine comes when he has the chance to tell off Barry's father, a jerk of the highest order who believes his son is just lazy, not sick.

But thanks to a script by William Blinn that seems determined to understate everything, the moment passes quickly, and the confrontation amounts to nothing -- a shame, really. People who watch this film are going to wish they could have been there instead of Jack. Boy, could we give that guy a piece of our mind.

'The Boys Next Door'

What: Hallmark Hall of Fame production

Stars: Nathan Lane, Michael Jeter and Mare Winningham

When: 9 p.m. -- 11 p.m. tomorrow

Where; CBS, Channel 13 (WJZ)

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