Just about the nicest movie in town - and thus, at either a great advantage or a severe handicap - is Martha Coolidge’s “Three Wishes,” a Capra-style fantasy starring Patrick Swayze as a drifter who might be either a troublemaker or a do-gooder.
Any which way he may turn out, the movie is a sweet-natured, healing experience for anyone in search of a respite from all the rude language and stuff that earns most other movies those PG-13 and R-for-raunchy ratings. You could take your mother to see it without risk of either one of you getting embarrassed.
“Three Wishes,” whose cryptic title won’t be explained here, takes place during 1955 but is framed by a present-day story about a middle-aged guy named Tom (Michael O’Keefe) who is awash in self-pity. Retreating into memory, Tom dredges up that childhood summer when the beatnik came to live at his house.
Tom as a kid is played by “Jurassic Park’s” Joseph Mazzello, who does a slick job of bringing the character gradually from an ill-mannered state to a more sympathetic presence. He has good reason to be surly, of course, because his father is presumed dead in the Korean War and his mother - played by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio - can’t quite bring herself to get on with life. A kid brother, played with natural charm by Seth Mumy, is given too little attention at first but proves, surprisingly, to carry about equal weight with Mazzello’s character.
Anyway, Swayze is drifting through town when Mom accidentally smacks into him with her auto. Guilt-ridden, she invites him to put up at their place until a fracture heals, and the trouble with the neighborhood promptly begins.
Scandalized, the middle-class suburban community puts its gossip machine in high gear. This tramp not only has a beard and a scruffy-looking dog, but he concocts a potion he calls “sun tea” - and sunbathes in the altogether. He seems to know baseball, but when he attempts to help Tom’s losing Little League team, he starts talking about Eastern mysticism and teaches the boys to meditate, for gosh sakes.
Character revelations and even incidents are slow to come but worth the wait in Elizabeth Anderson’s leisurely screenplay. A couple of turning points toward the end are good for a shiver of compassion or a lump in the throat.
Coolidge directs the works as more a reflection of than a homage to Frank Capra, the movies’ great sentimentalist. “Three Wishes” may not be a patch on “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946), to cite the most obvious Capra-corn, but it’s a delight on its own terms - and reassuring proof that Hollywood can still deliver the occasional quiet and tender picture.
xxxx “THREE WISHES” Location: Lincoln Heights, Lyons and Coeur d’Alene cinemas Credits: Directed by Martha Coolidge; starring Patrick Swayze, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Joseph Mazzello Running time: 1:48 Rating: PG
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