The Amati Girls
review by Gregory Avery, 16 March 2001

In a working-class Italian-American household in Philadelphia, the four daughters of the Amati family assemble to cook and serve dinner to their various spouses, children, and relatives, after which, over dessert, Aunt Loretta (Edith Fields) and Aunt Splendora (Lee Grant) launch into vicious, but pointless, arguments over who's best: Sinatra or Tony Bennett.

The daughters, however, are concerned with other matters. Grace (Mercedes Ruehl), who always seems to be involved in doing several things at once, is the sturdy one, the touchstone, the one who holds everything and everyone together, even though her husband (Paul Sorvino) treats her like a servant. Among the many things occupying Grace's time is complying with a request from her mother (Cloris Leachman), recently widowed but on all other accounts still very much alive, to hand-sew the dress that she wants to buried in, and to accompany her on trips to pick out a casket that has the right color-coordination.

Christine (Sean Young) has separated from her husband (Jamey Sheridan), who can never find time away from his job to attend to the needs of the couple's two daughters. (There is a hint that he may not be simply busy but afraid to make a commitment that he would then not be able to follow through on.) Denise (Dinah Manoff) wants to be a professional singer although she can't sing, lands a job with a touring company of Fiddler on the Roof ("Fiddler on the Roof is a CLASSIC!!" she gushes), and can't decide whether to get married or not to Lawrence (Mark Harmon), who has the patience of a saint.

Dolores (Lily Knight) suffers under some sort of unspecified birth defect, the result of when her mother, during pregnancy, fell while chasing after one of the other girls. Dolores must now take pills and receive constant supervision. But, having become an adult, she wants to wear makeup and have a boyfriend, whom she finds in sweet -- and, while unstated, also apparently handicapped -- Armand (Danny Spinuzza), who shyly exchanges glances with her for the first time over bingo cards in the local church's rec hall. Later, they will go on a date to see Lady and the Tramp, and pay for their tickets with pocket change.

As written and directed by Anne DeSalvo, the picture can't take two steps without providing something that's wise, insightful, and reassuring. In keeping with the opening statement that "nobody loves you like a sister", the daughters always seem to have time for each other, no matter what hour or time of the day. When Christine announces that she's seeking a divorce ("'For better, for worse'! It should be a promise, not a sentence!"), Mama Amati replies, "Try harder!" One character admonishes that, in the face of adversity, "When your heart's right, the rest follows." When Dolores expresses doubts about whether she'll ever find a boyfriend, Grace tells her, "There's a top to every pot." However, when Dolores does get a guy, she's immediately told that she can't have one after all: "Not all pots have tops." (Of course, Dolores then wails, "I want a top!")

The picture moves in the punishing, pre-programmed manner of the most synthetic T.V. programs, complete with accompanying music that gets more and more swampier as things go along. The only thing more offensive than the condescending attitude towards Dolores (or the unpardonable way in which Cloris Leachman is photographed, unflatteringly, in most of her scenes) is the last-minute surprise plot turn that allows the filmmakers to spend several more minutes dragging us through the mud of bathos. (After receiving a tiny theatrical release in February, the film is now being shown on the Fox Family channel, which is probably the best place for it: it's best taken ten minutes at a time, with breaks.)

Mark Harmon's appearance -- even with an unflattering thatch of prematurely-grey hair and, in one scene, a beret -- reminds one of the pleasantly surprised reaction one had to his remarkable performance in Nicolas Roeg's 1992 film Cold Heaven, meaning that he can be a pretty good actor on occasion. Mercedes Ruehl presents a remarkably confident and fully-realized portrayal of Grace, especially considering that all her character's big scenes apparently did not make it into the final cut, if they were there to begin with.

And it's probably about time that someone gave Sean Young one more crack at a big leading role in a motion picture. After spending years almost completely out-of-sight in the hinterlands of direct-to-video, she has emerged as a performer with range. Listening to Manoff's character attempting to sing Kiss of Fire in public, Young gives such a wonderfully convoluted  reaction, without uttering a word, that it just about primes one for a more unpredictable, and richer, family drama than the one that emerges.

Written and
Directed by:

Anne DeSalvo

Starring:
Mercedes Ruehl
Sean Young
Dinah Manoff
 Lily Knight
Paul Sorvino
Jamey Sheridan
Lee Grant
Mark Harmon
Cloris Leachman

Rated:
Not Rated
This film has not 
yet been rated.

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