Most viewers for CBS' Riding the Bus With My Sister will be tuning in to see how Rosie O'Donnell does in the role of a developmentally challenged woman suddenly forced to cope with the loss of her care-giving father.
The short version: O'Donnell does well enough - in part, because she gives her character a hard, selfish, even obnoxious edge that nicely undercuts the built-in sentimentality of a Hallmark Hall of Fame film.
Ultimately, it is Andie MacDowell's performance as a career-obsessed older sister that makes or breaks the film, and that is a more complicated matter. It is MacDowell's character, after all, who must change over the course of the film for its story to work. And MacDowell doesn't have the emotional range to make her transformation convincing. The result is frustration brought on by a film that promises an emotional payoff, but never delivers.
Nonetheless, the film does offer a few delightful moments and insights that make this a ride worth taking tomorrow night. Though MacDowell doesn't deliver the emotional goods down the home stretch, it is her performance during the first two-thirds of the film that draws one into the two sisters' story.
Director Anjelica Huston opens by cutting back and forth between the worlds of Beth (O'Donnell) and Rachel (MacDowell). With support from her father, Beth lives on her own in a cluttered apartment filled with stuffed animals, bright colors and a seemingly endless supply of junk food. It is an adolescent's world. She spends her days riding city buses, and she knows every driver, route and schedule along the way.
Rachel lives in a stylish Manhattan loft and spends her days rushing from one photo shoot to another. She exercises, diets, worries about her job, eats sensibly and dresses in colors as dark as her sister's are bright. There's a man in her life - they share the loft - but she seems to hardly notice him among the demands of her cell phone, computer and camera.
The worlds collide when their father suddenly dies, and Beth is threatened with being put in a group home unless Rachel agrees to help her prove she can continue living on her own. For Rachel, that means leaving New York, putting her career on hold and getting involved.
Huston deftly uses flashbacks to show the pain of the sisters' broken family, and the resentment Rachel felt as a child being ordered to care for Beth. The film's best moments are glimpses of shared hurt and joy between the sisters.
"Beth is just like you - fingers, toes, eyes and nose - but she's different, too. And you have to take care of her," their mother says to Rachel in a flashback.
"Forever?" little Rachel asks.
"Yes, forever," her mother says.
And forever is now, as grown-up Rachel comes to realize as she bumps along on a city bus next to her sister - wondering how their family came to this.
MacDowell plays the tightly wrapped, emotionally wounded, goal-oriented Rachel with just the right mixture of neurosis, self-righteousness, professionalism and steely determination. But the point of the film is that the sister whom society deems successful ultimately is the one who needs help learning how to live. Her developmentally challenged sister, meanwhile, is the one with wisdom to impart.
A final scene of the sisters dancing together on the beach is emblematic of MacDowell's inability to sell the idea of a more spontaneous, in-the-moment Rachel. While the other characters all dance with abandon and glee, Rachel's movements seem as wooden as they did at the start of the film.
Instead of feeling what is supposed to be a transcendent, visceral moment of joy, one is reminded how much the tableau seems like the front of a greeting card - and ultimately how manufactured, sentimental and shallow it seems.
What: Riding the Bus With My Sister
When: Tomorrow night at 9
Where: WJZ (Channel 13)
In brief: Rosie O'Donnell and Andie MacDowell as sisters making a truce and finding love.