Warner Bros. // 1977 // 93 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker // December 21st, 2009
"It'll be a gathering of the Thorntons."
A few days before Christmas, Adam Thornton (Ed Asner, Up) gets awful news: he has somewhere between 30 and 90 days to live. A cold man who made his business his life and neglected his family, Adam now wants to reunite the clan and make peace. First, he must convince his estranged wife, Kate (Maureen Stapleton, Reds), to help him get everyone together.
Unfortunately, Adam is reaping what he sowed, offspring-wise, and his grown children aren't all that interested in seeing him. Son Tom (Lawrence Pressman, American Pie), is a chip off the cold block, obsessed with business, ignoring his model-gorgeous wife (Veronica Hamel, Hill Street Blues), and focused on using the holiday to impress clients and further his career. Daughter Peggy (Gail Strickland, Norma Rae), is a government worker whose boyfriend would rather go to Aspen. Julie (Rebecca Balding, The Silent Scream) would like to bring the grandchildren, but her husband (Bruce Davison, Willard) is always being put-down by Adam. And Bud (Gregory Harrison, Trapper John, M.D.) is a draft dodger living in Canada under an assumed name.
Kate contacts everyone, but doesn't mention Adam's illness. Out of respect for her, they start showing up. Slowly, the family comes together for what they don't realize will be their last Christmas.
The Gathering was the sort of well-made, stately, respectable fare that passed for prestige TV in the pre-cable '70s. It's a handsome production and well acted, particularly by Asner and Stapleton, but the script falls short of making this the moving experience it should have been.
The first half of the film is exposition. In the beginning, this is OK, because it gives us time with Asner and Stapleton. Asner is very good here, and the role is a chance for him to step away from his long-established Lou Grant persona. Since the film opens with him getting the bad news from his doctor, we never see the hard-driven and nasty man he's purported to have been. This is a touching, introspective performance, and Asner excels in it.
The standout here is Stapleton. In the '70s, she was the "go-to" actress when a role required a strong, solid, mature presence. Maureen Stapleton was playing middle-aged ladies before she was middle aged. She was memorable in TV movies such as Queen of the Stardust Ballroom and Tell Me Where It Hurts. She received an Oscar nomination for Woody Allen's Interiors and won the award for Reds. Stapleton offers a beautifully modulated and sensitive performance in The Gathering, easily the best of the lot.
Unfortunately, the film takes a lot of time to introduce the Thornton children and their significant others, and they're just not an especially interesting bunch. Each offspring gets a scene that sets them up in fairly obvious ways: they all have issues with Asner's character, and it's pretty much the same issue (cold, nasty man). The dialogue in these scenes sounds unnatural and heavily scripted, and since the film is called The Gathering, the big crisis -- will they or won't they spend Christmas with their parents -- doesn't really hold much dramatic tension.
The gathering itself is attended not just by the family, but by a whole passel of friends and neighbors as well; as such, everything remains on a surface level. One of the adult children figures out Asner's secret, but never lets on, instead swapping Asner's gift so Dad won't get stuck with a fishing rod he won't live long enough to use. Asner is able to make amends for decades of horrible behavior by just being a nice guy for one night, tying up a bit too neatly all the conflicts.
Admirably, the film never devolves into a "disease" movie, and we are spared the kind of histrionics we'd normally get from that genre. Unfortunately, the whole thing is too restrained and simple, and lacks the emotional punch and poignancy it should deliver. The Christmas portrayed here is an idyllic yuletide wet dream that makes Currier and Ives look Grinch-like. Soft and pure white snow blankets the ground while the players sip warm drinks in a large, comfortable home. An army of pitch-perfect carolers shows up, seemingly with their own echo chamber. The tree is large, full, and carefully decorated. Presents are well-chosen and meaningful, young children are well-behaved, and just to make everything complete, people bond over an impromptu fireworks display.
The disc is from Warner Archive, which means the film is just slapped on it with no real care. The picture looks dull, and the audio sounds flat. There are no extras, and the film opens with preview scenes, as it probably aired on TV over 30 years ago.
The disc I received is a screener, and so I didn't forget this, the words PROP. OF WARNER BROS. were burned into the picture, about three-quarters to the bottom. These words remained the length of the film. I understand bootlegging DVDs is a problem, but leaving a tag like that for the whole movie is distracting and excessive.
The Gathering was a pretty popular TV-movie in its day, receiving an Emmy Award as Outstanding Special (Comedy or Drama) and nominations for writing, directing, art direction, and Stapleton's lead performance. It didn't appeal to me, but I can't call it a bad film, just less than what it should have been.
Review content copyright © 2009 Tom Becker; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 93 Minutes
Release Year: 1977
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Warner Archive