To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday (1996)

[6.5]

Two years after his wife Gillian (Michelle Pfeiffer) died in a boating accident, David (Peter Gallagher) keeps her alive in his imagination through nightly frolics and conversations on the beach at night. As family and friends come together to celebrate what would have been Gillian’s 37th birthday, David’s sister-in-law (Kathy Baker) says she’ll seek legal custody of his worried teenaged daughter (Claire Danes) if he can’t make peace with the past and finally let Gillian go.

To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday is a supremely wistful film based on a stage play by Michael Brady and adapted by respected TV producer David E. Kelley (Pfeiffer’s husband). Though there’s a fair amount of good humor sprinkled throughout, there’s a good chance you might find it cloyingly sentimental. That part doesn’t bother me, though — it’s intrinsic to the story’s very core, take it or leave it. What holds the film back is its narrative structure. We know too much too soon, causing the film to emotionally plateau, offering no real ups or downs as it coasts to a rather predictable conclusion.

That said, it’s a pretty nice plateau. Gallagher and Danes give good performances, and I’m always happy to see the highly under-appreciated Kathy Baker in a movie. I especially love the seaside setting and the way the cast look in Tim Suhrstedt’s blue moonlight. James Horner’s score is one of my favorites from the composer, featuring a serene combination of sustained piano chords and forlorn french horns. Between the melancholy of the characters, the frequent sound of the rolling waves, and Horner’s elegiac music, the film has an oddly meditative quality to it that I find very relaxing.

With Wendy Crewson, Bruce Altman, and Freddie Prinze, Jr.

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