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On TNT, a wine country romance that's tough to swallow

Lainie Kazan doesn't need to try to be larger than life. She just is.

So it can be a test watching her strain to act like a passionate Italian-American mama in ''The Engagement Ring." She's not merely playing stubborn in this TNT movie, she's playing the Olympic champion of universal stubbornness. She doesn't just deliver her vindictive lines with feeling, she rams them down everyone's throats, along with a stream of visceral Italian exclamations. She isn't just bossy, she becomes a screaming tyrant around whom even her strong-willed daughter, Sara (Patricia Heaton), must tiptoe.

Let's just say that spending two hours with Kazan and her garish monster should win us an Emmy, for best patience with a performance. The movie, which premieres tonight at 8 on TNT, is an attempt to be a cutesy ethnic romance, a ''My Big Fat Greek Wedding" set in California wine country. But it comes off like a case of overripe Italian stereotypes, led by Kazan and her cartoonish facial expressions. If her acting in ''The Engagement Ring" were distilled and bottled, one shot would put you on the floor.

Kazan is Alicia, a vineyard owner who was once in love with Nick (Tony Lo Bianco), from a neighboring vineyard family. In fact, 40 years ago, Nick sent Alicia a proposal with an engagement ring, but, in a painful contrivance by writer Rodney Vaccaro, the letter was lost at the post office, and Alicia never knew about it. When she didn't respond, Nick assumed she'd dumped him and he withdrew; and then she assumed he'd dumped her. And they never spoke again, bad-mouthing each other to everyone.

Until now, of course. In the present tense, daughter Sara wants to buy Nick's vineyard to expand their wine company. But Alicia forbids it, because of her undying hatred for Nick. And Nick forbids it, because of his undying hatred for Alicia. But of course the ring finally shows up in Alicia's mail, changing the course of the business negotiations, if not the course of plot cliches.

Meanwhile, Nick's nephew Tony (Vincent Spano) and Sara begin their own romantic dance, despite the fact that Sara is already engaged. As they work at tricking Alicia and Nick into a financial transaction, the younger couple try not to make the same mistakes as their forebears. ''The Engagement Ring" is the kind of movie whose symbolic language is so simplistic, we know Sara's fiance, Brian (Heaton's real-life husband, David Hunt), is expendable only because he's a businessman with a cellphone. Tony, on the other hand, is lusty and wears white T-shirts and likes to cook. Obviously, the movie is on his side.

Now free from her ''Everybody Loves Raymond" obligations, Heaton is likable enough. Her Sara is similar to her former sitcom persona, the kind of intelligent woman who comes across more as ''feisty" than as ''powerful." And her Sara also has to deal with an older if not wiser oppressor, although Doris Roberts seems almost easygoing next to Kazan.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at

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