2007, 85 minutes
Directed by Andy Wolk
With: Samantha Mathis, Peter Dobson, Gina Hecht, Thomas Kopache, June Squibb, Kevin Kilner, Mary Matilyn Mouser
Itâ€™s shooting fish in a barrel to knock a well-intentioned Hallmark Channel movie, but the bland and obvious melodrama â€śA Strangerâ€™s Heartâ€ť can turn even the most open-minded viewer into Simon Cowell with a hangover. As the â€śAmerican Idolâ€ť judge might say, I donâ€™t mean to be cruel, but, aside from the game lead actors and the pretty look of the film, this is cinematic karaoke.
Lonely thirtysomething magazine reporter Callie Morgan (Samantha Mathis), whose mother was run down by a car when Callie was little, has grown up with a withdrawn father (Thomas Kopache) and has become withdrawn herself. Much of her misery stems from worrying about her diseased heart, and blonde beauty Mathis (â€śJack & Sarah,â€ť â€śSuper Mario Bros.â€ť) is given dark rings under her eyes and a dark, humorless soul to go with them.
Checking in to a hospital to await a transplant, Callie is thrust into a small group of endlessly upbeat patients who mask their own fears of imminent death by goofing around and playing practical jokes, like scaring the shaky Callie with life-size blowup dolls -- not really a thoughtful thing to do to someone with a heart that could seize up with very little provocation. The chief practical joker is Jasper Cates (Peter Dobson), a tall, dark and handsome lunk who is as attracted to Callie as she is repulsed by him. A nauseatingly sweet female patient (Gina Hecht) is also on hand to provide occasional prayer and moral uplift.
A patient or two die (off-screen) before Callie and Jasper get their lucky hearts. After she recovers and goes home, the grateful, healthier-looking Callie does some inappropriate research into the donor (â€śIâ€™m a reporter!â€ť she barks at her doctor when he scolds her). Turns out the woman died in a car crash along with her husband, and theyâ€™ve left behind a little girl -- who lives in Callieâ€™s town! Callie begins hanging around the second-graderâ€™s schoolyard and eventually allows the girl, Cricket (Mary Matilyn Mouser), to believe she is her guardian angel.
Just as this is starting to enter a world of creepiness, along strolls the jaunty Jasper to push the movie over the edge. He shows up at the school and tells the surprised Callie that, oh yeah, he got Cricketâ€™s dadâ€™s heart. (Charles Dickens, who never shied away from coincidence in his books, would have tossed that plot development into the fireplace.) So now that theyâ€™ve found the little girl who needs to hear their beating hearts, itâ€™s only up to Callie and Jasper to find their way to each other. But Mathis and Dobson have so little romantic chemistry, I had to avert my eyes when they committed their first kiss.
The disc could hardly be any barer. The only extra comes when you pop the DVD in: a longish trailer for â€śAmerica,â€ť a documentary about the wonderfulness of the nation. You can skip it and go to the menu by hitting your â€śnextâ€ť or â€śskipâ€ť key. The full-motion main menu offers just Play and Scene Selection (there are eight chapters).
The transfer preserves the TV movieâ€™s not terribly widescreen 1.78:1 format, and for what itâ€™s worth, the picture is consistently clean and crisp. The film was shot in 35mm in some picturesque coastal spots in California (or farther north), but the low budget is evident in the sparseness of background actors in the hospital, traffic in the streets and other signs of real life.
The Dolby stereo sound emanates from the center of the action -- adequate for a drama with no action scenes or special effects -- but some ambient sounds do sneak out of the side speakers allowing for a full but unobtrusive aural experience. A melodramatic score overlays much of the movie. There are no foreign language or subtitle options.
Samantha Mathis supplies a degree of star quality, but this is a slight, banal telefilm about two heart transplant candidates who get a second chance at life, and it has at least one far-fetched plot twist too many. It looks handsome enough, but â€śA Strangerâ€™s Heartâ€ť is only for lazy viewers whoâ€™ll watch anything put in front of them.