There's so very much wrong with "The Russell Girl," a new Hallmark Hall of Fame production, it's hard to know where to begin. This CBS movie, which premieres tomorrow at 9 p.m. on Channel 4, moves so slowly I craved espresso shots to get through it. The writing is so cliched - one character actually says, "Bad things happen to good people all the time" - I pitied the actors. And the story logic is so strained and preposterous, I had to stifle my laughter during some extremely melodramatic scenes.
Wait, strike that. I didn't stifle my laughter. I took my entertainment where I could.
The story is about Sarah Russell (Amber Tamblyn), a young woman in Chicago who learns she's suffering from an illness that requires aggressive treatment. She immediately goes home to her parents in suburbia, but she doesn't tell them she's sick. Instead, she plays emotional chess with a hunky young love interest (Paul Wesley) and with the family across the street, the Morrisseys, in whose lingering grief Sarah plays a mysterious role. Lorraine Morrissey (Jennifer Ehle), the mother, takes one look at Sarah from across the street and begins a fast decline into severe depression, at one point chopping down rose bushes in a Joan Crawford-like fury.
It takes the script, by Jill Blotevogel, a seriously long hour to let us in on the tragic connection between Sarah and the Morrisseys. During that hour, Tamblyn (from "Joan of Arcadia") ambles through the action delivering tears and Big Looks that have no specific meaning. Ehle, meanwhile, works up a fever of distress and anger that comes and goes with unintentional comedy. Looking uncannily like Meryl Streep, Ehle is doomed to be laughably inconsistent by the script's ridiculous leaps.
The pacing is excruciating at times. I assume director Jeff Bleckner wanted to build tension and set a sober tone, since there is so much death, illness, and guilt afoot. But everything - Sarah driving home, Sarah eating a grilled cheese sandwich - seems to take for-freaking-ever. It's as if Sarah is moving through water. We know she has some unfinished business to deal with before she can move forward to address her physical ailment. So, OK, now let's get to work! Chop chop!
Of course the messages in "The Russell Girl" are valuable, in a Hallmark armchair-psychology kind of way. You know - healing is a state of mind, wounds can last for years, if you don't deal with your problems they'll deal with you, etc. etc. etc. If only those familiar observations could have been delivered in a sturdier, and speedier, vehicle.