Judge Sandra Dozier was disappointed to discover that this family film isn't a sequel to The Incredible Mr. Limpet.
The incredible Mrs. Ritchie takes a troubled teen on a journey through the harvest season in her backyard, where friendship and trust are grown.
Originally filmed in Canada and released by Showtime in the U.S., The Incredible Mrs. Ritchie is somewhere between after-school special and TV movie of the week in how it comes across. James Caan (who plays school principal Harry Dewitt) has only a peripheral role in the movie, basically as a conduit for getting Mrs. Ritchie (Gena Rowlands) and troubled teen Charlie (Kevin Zegers) together at the beginning. He makes an appearance again at the end, but the movie is firmly in the hands of Mrs. Ritchie for the majority of the running time.
This is not entirely a bad thing; Rowlands turns in a warm, completely likable performance as Mrs. Ritchie, a widowed matriarch who has two sons with Down's syndrome and can always be found puttering in her vast garden. Charlie is sent to her after a series of delinquent episodes that tax the patience of Dewitt. The theory, apparently, is that a little manual labor (and time away from the bad influences he normally hangs out with) will do him some good.
Writer (and director) Paul Johansson wanted to bring his experience with a real-life Mrs. Ritchie to the screen, and he has obviously poured much of his heart into the script and direction. However, the main problem I had with Mrs. Ritchie is the utterly clichéd setup. Charlie is a textbook rebel from a dysfunctional family, complete with the tastefully distressed denim jacket, a shrill and alcoholic mother, and an abusive father who carries a rather large chip on his shoulder due to a suspected infidelity in his wife's past. The family is barely holding together, and Charlie acts out with violent activity designed to impress a gang of roughnecks that he'd very much like to hang out with. This formula, combined Zegers's overeager performance, gives the movie that after-school quality. The moralizing, at this point, is actually not that thick, but it feels like it should be, and that's enough.
When he goes to Mrs. Ritchie, Charlie is horrified by her industriousness, her magnificent garden, her eccentric conversations with her late husband, and her developmentally challenged sons. It is all far too square for him to handle, but he grudgingly goes through the motions. Mrs. Ritchie doesn't force things, and soon he begins to warm to her. At this point, the viewer starts to warm to the movie, as well, and this is mostly due to Rowlands. She seems to glide in a bubble of tranquility through each scene, either oblivious to the chaos around her (her daughter and son-in-law arrive, and the son-in-law starts wondering how much he'll get for selling her property), or above it. This latter state seems more likely, since at times we see her pulled back down into the reality of her situation—a reality that includes her own declining health, as evidenced by a persistent cough and periods of weakness.
As Charlie begins to find his own place in the universe and heal his fractured psyche, things and people around him begin to change, as well. The metaphor of Mrs. Ritchie's garden as an emblem of Charlie's flowering humanity isn't beaten into you with a bat, but it's something you won't miss, either. There's a sprinkling of the supernatural toward the end, as well, which livens up the story a bit but does not make up for the predictable and shamelessly heartstring-tugging ending.
As a low-key family movie, Mrs. Ritchie isn't a bad way to spend the evening. In particular, the portrayal of Mrs. Ritchie's sons is positive and refreshing. When Charlie starts working for her, he is trying to fix a lawn mower with no luck. After some struggle, one of the boys laughs at him, and Charlie spits, "I'd like to see you do it!" As soon as he is asked, the son kneels down and quickly repairs the machine as if it were the simplest thing to do. It's a sweet and funny scene that teaches Charlie a good lesson about assumptions and tolerance, and manages to connect with the viewer.
The only strong caveat involves a startling scene early in the film in which Charlie is forced by his father to drown a helpless dog. Parents wishing to share this film with young kids may want to give this a glance first. Even adult dog lovers will have trouble watching this scene, not just for its violence, but because it is absurd that an alternative solution was not found. It is obvious that this is used as a way to establish Charlie's oppression and animosity toward his parents, but it's so jarring that it jerks viewers out of the narrative, perhaps so abruptly that they will never get back.
The video transfer for The Incredible Mrs. Ritchie is good, with a clean print and bright visuals. The production values for this movie are on the medium-high end, and Mrs. Ritchie's garden is bursting with color that is shown off well by the clear image. Sound quality is also good, with the original English 2.0 surround track and a remastered 5.1 track that is clear but fairly straightforward as far as channel separation. Extras feature interviews with writer-director Paul Johansson about the movie and his cast, and actors Rowlands and Zegers discussing their roles. Also included are bios for the three lead actors and a couple of trailers.
The Incredible Mrs. Ritchie is, at its best, a sweet and endearing story about coming of age, but the viewer must first get through a formulaic plot that is constantly in danger of bogging down in cliché. Fans of Gena Rowlands or Kevin Zegers will enjoy their screen time and onscreen chemistry, however, and may want to check this out.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Showtime Entertainment
• Interviews with Cast and Director
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