In terms of overly sappy, inspirational, based-on-a-real-story movies-of-the-week that let some TV star ham it up as a mentally challenged character, "Behind the Mask" is better than average; as a plus, it does not star Rosie O'Donnell. Its lone objective is to be sweet, which it is, and thanks to a solid cast and a few strong moments, the film manages to not be the horrible mess one would expect from such a project.
First broadcast on CBS in February 1999, the film stars Matthew Fox (then in his fifth season of "Party of Five") as James Jones, who for eight years has mopped floors at the Developmental Activities Center, where he is also a patient. The center is run by Dr. Bob Shushan (Donald Sutherland), a workaholic who suffers a heart attack and is rescued by James. The two become friends of a sort, with Dr. Shushan helping James find the father who abandoned him years ago. Meanwhile, Dr. Shushan must deal with his own family, including the son (a pre-"West Wing" Bradley Whitford) he neglected all his life.
It's one of those familiar tales in which everybody learns a little something - not to judge people at first glance; family is more important than work; forgiveness is a great gift; etc. "Mask," written by Gregory Goodell and directed by Tom McLaughlin (both veterans of TV movies), offers no surprises and stubbornly sticks to the formula, yet the movie ultimately works thanks to its kindhearted nature and some very sharp performances.
The filmmakers are very careful in their treatment of the handicapped characters, delicately avoiding turning the James role into a gimmicky attention-grabber for Fox. The screenplay details James' transformation from reclusive and socially awkward to confident and proud, but it does so in a way that treats James with respect. (The movie also casts many of the real-life center's patients in minor roles.) Dr. Shushan, meanwhile, despite being given a bland, conventional father-finds-his-way subplot, feels real here, thanks to a script that has him acting like a genuine person and not a mere movie character. Listen to how he interacts with James, using the language and patience of a professional. He is calm and quiet, choosing his words carefully.
Fox may have the flashier role, but it's Sutherland who makes the picture click. Again, we look at how Shushan deals with James, especially when James starts shouting in public. Here is a man who has dealt with such things for decades, and Sutherland makes his behavior feel so very natural.
The story has a few angles that seem too hackneyed to be true (even if they turn out to be all too real), such as the subplot involving James' quest to become an ordained minister. This storyline leads us to a scene in which Shushan finds James delivering a short sermon on tolerance at a local church. The scene alone isn't quite successful - it comes off as a second-rate plot device - but without this scene, we couldn't get a later, more effective one in which James reveals a purity of heart that, in turn, winds up making the entire movie work. By building on top of iffy scenes, the filmmakers manage to pull off some nice ones later on.
"Mask" (a completely generic title, by the way, that makes little sense and makes the whole thing sound like a cheap thriller) concludes with footage of the real James meeting his father. It's an old trick, sure, but it gets a pass here, because, hey, it gets the job done. It closes the film with a natural sweetness that's often forced in lesser movies of the same type.
In a brilliant fit of stupidity, GT Media has released "Behind the Mask" with sloppy Photoshop work on the DVD cover that features a stock photo of Fox as his "Lost" character, replacing any art actually relating to the film itself (and thus blurring what the movie may actually have to offer). GT Media also claims the film to be "from the Academy Award-winning writer of 'Rain Man,'" which is a bit of a stretch, as "Rain Man" co-author Barry Morrow only served as one of the executive producers, nothing else.
Video & Audio
Presented in its original 1.33:1 broadcast format, "Behind the Mask" looks soft but passable, a typical TV movie look. The Dolby stereo soundtrack does a fine job with the talk-heavy production. No subtitles are provided.
None, unless you count the couple of trailers that play when the disc loads.
Those of you who enjoy TV movies bound to earn a rerun or two on the Hallmark Channel will find enough here to satisfy, but nothing here deserves repeat viewings. Rent It.