The Amati Girls

In the lexicon of indelible screen images—the burning of Atlanta in Gone With The Wind, the foggy airfield in Casablanca, Orson Welles' entrance in The Third Man—the sight of Cloris Leachman playing a round of bingo in a crudely appointed church basement ranks somewhere near the bottom. Also trailing in the listings is Paul Sorvino rehearsing for a ballet recital, an epic Bennett-vs.-Sinatra argument between Leachman and Lee Grant, and any other random scene from The Amati Girls, an alternately laughable and dispiriting exercise in wholesome family fare. Following 1999's The Omega Code and Grizzly Falls, The Amati Girls is a product of Providence Entertainment, a company that posits itself as a Christian answer to Hollywood immorality, making "life-affirming family films" to "reinforce strong social and ethical values." In other words, nothing any discerning man, woman, or child would find remotely stimulating. Recognizable faces dot the cast, led by Mercedes Ruehl as the eldest of four sisters, each of whom deals with banal, thinly realized problems between group singalongs of "Doo Wah Diddy." Overburdened by several children, an old-fashioned husband (Sorvino) who expects her to do all the housework, and a mother (Leachman) fixated on her own eventual death, Ruehl also plays a central role in the emotional and spiritual lives of her three siblings. These include Dinah Manoff as a would-be lounge singer reluctant to commit to boyfriend Mark Harmon, Lily Knight as a mildly retarded innocent looking for love, and Sean Young as a woman coping with neglectful husband and deadbeat dad Jamey Sheridan. Of writer-director Anne De Salvo's many offenses, the worst is the way she passes off Knight's childlike behavior as both puppy-dog adorable and the embodiment of Christian purity. When she and her prospective boyfriend (a slow-witted fellow who looks like Peter Lorre in a Members Only jacket and a too-tight sweater) steal away to the movies, the theater, fittingly, is showing Lady And The Tramp. And when the family is in its greatest crisis, she's the one Ruehl, in full Shatner mode, calls upon to "Pray! Pray!" to the Blessed Mother and the saints. Due to Providence's grassroots marketing savvy, a piece of sub-Lifetime fodder like The Amati Girls can easily reach a mass audience. Yet, despite its stance against everything Hollywood represents, it has its own corrupt set of moral and artistic values.

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