Sony // 1996 // 93 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Kevin Lee (Retired) // June 14th, 2002
You're invited to Gillian's 37th birthday. There will be music in the air...castles in the sand...and someone totally unexpected at the party.
Of course, that "someone totally unexpected" was me. You see, there is no way I had ever planned to watch this movie at any time during my lifetime, yet here I am writing a review of To Gillian On Her 37th Birthday.
For years David E. Kelley has inflicted the world with various syrup-drenched, melodramatic television series about snooty, self-centered yuppie lawyers, doctors, or teachers, most notably of which were LA Law, Ally McBeal, and Boston Public. (Why is it that every single episode of Boston Public is a "very special episode?" Shouldn't there be a law against this?) This has allowed Kelley to branch out and write various syrup-drenched, melodramatic movies about snooty, self-centered yuppie lawyers and teachers, which To Gillian On Her 37th Birthday coincidentally happens to be. Columbia TriStar has brought To Gillian to DVD, and if you're actually a fan of this film, you aren't going to be pleased.
David Lewis (Peter Gallagher, While You Were Sleeping) is holding a birthday party for his wife, Gillian (Michelle Pfeiffer, What Lies Beneath, Dangerous Liaisons). The party is a yearly tradition held at David's beach house that involves activities like a sand castle contest and an endless demonstration of Karaoke skills. As the tradition requires, David's sister-in-law Esther (Kathy Baker, The Cider House Rules) shows up with her husband (and David's best friend) Paul (Bruce Altman, Cop Land) in tow. The other invitees are David's daughter Rachel (Claire Danes, Romeo + Juliet) and her best friend Cindy (Laurie Fortier, The In Crowd). The catch to this little party, however, is that Gillian died two years ago in a boating accident while celebrating her 35th birthday, so what should be a happy celebration about the continuance of life has become something of a somber remembrance of a person they all miss. On top of all this, Esther and Paul decide to try to fix David up with their friend Kevin (Wendy Crewson, The Good Son) by inviting her to the party. Truthfully, I was shocked to learn that "Kevin" could be a chick's name. It isn't something that I thought could be both, like "Tracy," or could be modified into a girl's name, like "Roberta" being derived from "Robert." After I recovered from this piece of emotional scarring, I learned that Esther and Paul didn't bother to tell David that they were bringing someone for him to hook up with while celebrating his dead wife's birthday, which also happens to be the anniversary of her death. They also didn't bother to inform Kevin of these facts ahead of time, either. Of course, with friends like Esther and Paul nobody would ever need any enemies. Personally, I'd rather have a friend who routinely jabbed me in the eye with a pencil while I tried to sleep than have friends like Esther and Paul.
After David convinces a very uncomfortable Kevin to stay for the weekend, we're treated to a number of vastly uncomfortable moments during the first night's dinner festivities. Have you ever been to a really big party and your best friend and his girlfriend get into a huge fight in front of everybody? Do you remember how uncomfortable it was to be around the whole situation as you watched it unfold? That was the exact feeling I got while watching this part (and several other parts) of To Gillian. When David gets frustrated with all of the arguing, he heads out to take a walk on the beach where he meets up with the ghost of his dead wife for a heart-to-heart talk. It turns out he's been doing this for quite some time and should probably be in a padded cell instead of running around loose.
Once this is revealed, we learn about Esther's other motive for coming to the party on this weekend. She's evaluating David's mental state and plans to file for custody of Rachel when she returns to the mainland. Naturally, she never bothered to inform Paul of her intention, and Paul does the only honorable thing in the entire movie -- he lets David know of Esther's plan. David then does the only thing that seems reasonable at this point when he orchestrates another boat accident and leaves the bodies out at sea. At least, that's probably what I would have done and it would have made the movie a whole more exciting. Instead, he gets into yet another argument with Esther and drops a couple of F-bombs to show emotion.
In the meantime, Rachel finally opens up and attends a party, where she gets moderately drunk. This causes her to stumble home and puke on David's feet, something that I wanted to do throughout most of the film.
What we have with To Gillian On Her 37th Birthday is a film that tries way too hard to tug at the heartstrings. The entire film is filled with moments that are supposed to invoke tears, complete with syrupy stringed accompaniment thanks to James Horner's musical score. This ploy might have worked if not for the fact that the only really likeable character in the entire movie is two years dead. David is nothing more than a self-absorbed, whining loser, and there were numerous moments where I felt like reaching through my television screen, grabbing him by throat, and shaking vigorously all the while screaming, "Get over it!" Since David spends most of his time pining over a ghost, he's neglecting his daughter's well-being, which seems a bit absurd. Esther is also a self-absorbed buttinsky, the kind that manages to ruin just about every family gathering and certainly doesn't make an exception of this one. Paul doesn't help matters by detaching himself from the entire situation by hanging out at the karaoke machine and leering creepily at Cindy instead of trying to help his friend. Kevin isn't given enough screen time despite the initial setup of the film. Instead, she's pretty much placed in the background throughout the story with little to do or say such as to have little to no relevance to the plot. Rachel seems normal enough but openly ignores her father's obvious mental problems. And last, but not least, Cindy torments Paul in the one scene in the entire film where I thought something (anything!) exciting might happen, but I was let down in this case, as well.
Sometimes a movie can use a decent plot to make up for its inherently unlikable characters, but this was not meant to be with To Gillian. There are so many times where the actions of the various characters simply come out of left field. Esther complains to Paul that there's no trust left in their marriage, yet she's the one who was scheming behind Paul's back and orchestrating a potential legal confrontation with David. Some marriage! Likewise, decisions made by both Rachel and David toward the film's conclusion simply fall flat when you consider the motivation and the previous actions of the characters. I won't spoil anything here, but it was like the 90-minute timer went off and the movie suddenly had to wrap up with a happy ending. This is simply a great example of poor pacing that film students could learn from.
The video transfer of To Gillian can be summed up with two horrible words: "Full" and "Screen." Full screen? Full screen! I can not for the life of me understand how we're suddenly back to square one on this issue. I was under the thinking that Columbia TriStar had finally seen the light and turned the corner with their DVD presentations, but I guess I was horribly wrong. At least we didn't have to worry about edge enhancement this time around. Of course, we have to worry about the graininess and pixelation that occurs from blowing up the negative to fit the screen. And I'll mention that the pan & scam shooting went well with the seaside setting to cause nausea. If you're looking for a good audio presentation, look no further than The Mummy Returns, because you aren't going to find it at any time on To Gillian On Her 37th Birthday. As far as special features go, you get the theatrical trailers to this film and trailers to several other films that aren't called To Gillian On Her 37th Birthday. So, let's take a look at this package. We have a crummy full screen picture, a less than impressive two-channel audio presentation, and basically no special features (sorry I don't count the "Interactive Menus" and "Scene Selections"). That would mean this is a bargain-priced DVD, right? Wrong! The suggested retail price is about 25 bucks. What about this picture doesn't say, "Don't buy this DVD"? Why not just tape a bunch of giant hissing cockroaches that are wearing dead spiders to the package?
As much as I really hated To Gillian On Her 37th Birthday, I have to freely admit that the acting jobs by the entire cast is top-notch, with the notable exception with the festering black hole of acting known as Freddie Prinze, Jr. (Wing Commander), who plays Rachel's love interest. Peter Gallagher was finally given the chance to carry a film with the lead role and performed his task adequately. Michelle Pfeiffer, as usual, is quite good in her role, but it's Claire Danes who really stands out as the real talent in the cast. There may not be much of a script or story to work with, but at least the characters feel real. The tension that fills the beach house during all of the various fights and arguments is a testament to the abilities of the cast.
Columbia TriStar has set DVD back five years with this release. They should be ashamed and I would only recommend buying To Gillian On Her 37th Birthday if you've seen it and you think it's the absolute greatest movie ever. Otherwise, be forewarned that this sap-fest will probably bore you to tears.
I don't understand how David E. Kelley still has a career. Guilty! It's the gulag for him until he writes Lake Placid 2.
Columbia TriStar is also hereby punished, fined, ridiculed and chastised for insulting the DVD community with this presentation. Come on, folks! You should know better by now!
Review content copyright © 2002 Kevin Lee; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 93 Minutes
Release Year: 1996
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Theatrical Trailers