|Lauren Ambrose stars as the title character in CBS's ''Loving Leah.''|
'And Mercedes Ruehl." The words strike fear in my heart, especially when they appear in the opening credits of a CBS Hallmark Hall of Fame movie. As a rule, Ruehl doesn't merely dominate her screen time; she wrestles it into submission, word by word, glare by glare.
Couple that with the fact that the cast of "Loving Leah," tomorrow at 9 p.m. on Channel 4, also features Susie Essman and you've got a knockout punch. Essman is the Blagojevich-tongued comedian who puts Larry David in his place on "Curb Your Enthusiasm," and her delivery can be the verbal equivalent of a machine gun. By mid-movie, when Ricki Lake shows up as a reform rabbi, "Loving Leah" is officially one of the more bizarre concoctions to emerge from the Hallmark factory.
But casting is only the start of what's odd about "Loving Leah," which is adapted by P'nenah Goldstein from her own play.
"Loving Leah" is primarily a cute love story between a mousy Hasidic woman in Brooklyn, Leah (Lauren Ambrose), and her urbane cardiologist brother-in-law in Washington, D.C., Jake (Adam Kaufman). That's right, brother-in-law. Leah's rabbi husband dies, and an obscure Jewish law requires her to marry his brother if she has not yet had children.
But Leah and Jake are so different! This is crazy! But it might just work! The movie strains and struggles to get Leah and Jake living platonically in the same Georgetown apartment, so they can follow the conventions of the sham-marriage comedy to the nth degree. While Leah takes classes to prepare for the SATs, so she can go to college and come into her own, Jake halfheartedly continues a love affair with a fellow doctor (Christy Pusz). Leah grows more physically beautiful by the day, especially after she takes off her wig and lets her long red hair flow, and Jake becomes less narcissistic as he sees the beauty of her soul.
Maybe the hokey setup would have been easier to swallow in a quirky independent film, one with a more textured backdrop and knowing tone like "Crossing Delancey." But in a squeaky clean Hallmark movie, the plot is just charmless bunk. Ruehl is out to lunch as Jake's mother, who attends her other son's funeral with nary a tear. Essman has the potential to be convincing, but she is miscast as Ambrose's mother. And Kaufman never gives more than a sitcom-deep performance, which makes Jake's spiritual growth very hard to detect. You have to take it on faith that he's maturing, even while his eyelashes remain so much prettier than Leah's.
I want to say I loved Ambrose, since she was such an essential and appealing part of "Six Feet Under." But as a subservient homemaker trying to get out from under the thumb of her mama, she's all wrong. Once Leah has broken into blossom, Ambrose makes sense. But until then, it's hard to buy her as an oppressed old-world wife lacking in selfhood and modernity, sneaking out to see romantic movies. Nope, can't say I was loving "Leah," or even liking it much.
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.