TO GILLIAN ON HER 37TH BIRTHDAY - * 1/2 - Peter Gallagher, Claire Danes, Kathy Baker, Wendy Crewson, Bruce Altman, Michelle Pfeiffer; rated PG-13 (profanity, vulgarity, partial nudity); Carmike Cottonwood Mall Theaters; Century 9 Theaters; Cineplex Odeon Broadway Centre, Midvalley and South Towne Center Cinemas.
Call this one " `Ghost' Lite" . . . if that's not redundant.
"To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday" boasts Michelle Pfeiffer in the title role - though she's not in the film very much - as the deceased wife of David (Peter Gallagher), a depressed New England college professor.
David and Gillian were married for 18 years, and since her death two years earlier in a foolish boating accident, David has been in a blue funk. Naturally, his family and friends are concerned, particularly his 16-year-old daughter Rachel (Claire Danes).
Meanwhile, David conjures up the spirit of his dead wife nightly to run with him along the beach at their Nantucket home.
In this case, of course, Gillian isn't really a ghost. David is delusional. But the effect is the same.
The plot centers around a Labor Day weekend visit from Gillian's interfering sister Esther (Kathy Baker) - who wants to take Rachel away from David - and her unhappy, wisecracking husband Paul (Bruce Altman). What David doesn't know is that they are also bringing along Kevin (Wendy Crewson), an attractive divorced woman, in a futile effort to jump-start David's life once again. And what Kevin doesn't know is that this is the second anniversary of Gillian's death, which occurred on her birthday.
The sixth member of this crew is Cindy (Laurie Fortier), Rachel's 16-year-old best friend, an overripe sexpot who has apparently read "Lolita" too many times.
If all of this sounds a bit theatrical (a woman named Kevin?), it is. The film's stage roots are belied early on with arch dialogue and implausible plotting - which would be OK if the film's sense of whimsy were natural instead of forced.
But much worse is an extremely tasteless minor subplot, which has Altman's character openly ogling young Cindy. At dinner he makes a salacious remark about the tight dress she's wearing, and the next day, at the beach, he makes an even more suggestive joke about breast-feeding. Worse, however, is that David and Esther seem unfazed by his remarks. Many audience members, on the other hand, were genuinely shocked.
Even more shocking is that the film was written by co-producer David E. Kelley (adapting Michael Brady's play). Kelley (who is married to Pfeiffer) is best known for his television work on "Picket Fences" and "Chicago Hope." If this is the best he can do with a feature, perhaps he should stick with the small screen.
Despite the gorgeous cinematography, and a couple of nice, understated performances, this is a completely contrived and sometimes idiotic misfire.
"To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday" is rated PG-13 for profanity, vulgarity and partial nudity, as Danes and Fortier wear thong bikinis on the beach.