This rose-tinted, made-for-cable soap opera (which first aired in December of 1996) is reminiscent of '30s tearjearkers like PENNY SERENADE (1941), which mingled light comedy with bathos. Lending substance to this laughter-tinged melodrama is Stockard Channing, who charmingly plows
through bogus plot contrivences to win over the sniffle-prone as well as more cynical viewers.
Career woman Barbara Whitney (Stockard Channing) relishes her comfortable Manhattan lifestyle and upscale job at a major art museum. Unprepared for the complications of parenting, she is forced to learn when her irresponsible sister Ruth (Christine Ebersole) leaves her two children with her so
that she can pursue a love affair in London. Barbara's dormant maternal instincts surface as she connects with neglected Matt (Noah Fleiss) and vulnerable Megan (Chelsea Russo), especially after nursing Megan through a fever.
With the help of her widowed friend Sam (Stephen Collins), Barbara learns mothering as she goes. Livid when Matt accidentally damages a painting in her museum, Barbara is heartbroken when he is hit by a car following an argument about his disruptive behavior at school. A year passes, and Barbara
and the kids grow close to each other. When Ruth shows up to collect her children, Barbara is unwilling to lose them and launches a custody suit. Ruth drops the suit after the pain of hearing in an open court what her children think about her behavior. Instead, she sets to work straightening out
her life so that she can one day reestablish a warm relationship with her children and sister.
Without a powerhouse lead actress, AN UNEXPECTED FAMILY would blow away like thistles in a typhoon. In a vehicle which doesn't tax her considerable resources, Channing is altogether engaging as an urban neurotic who finds fulfillment with an instant family. AN UNEXPECTED FAMILY doesn't have the
impact it might have, diluted by the contrived circumstances behind Ruth's desperate departure and the dialogue that cushions its bittersweet repercussions with one-liners. The problem is that this movie's humor doesn't transform the breast-beating nature of a story line about unwanted kids; it
rather "sitcom-izes" the genre's soggier pitfalls. Fans of tearjerkers are advised to overlook ridiculous plot twists like Matt's chaining himself to a school locker and simply accept the film as light entertainment. Thanks mainly to Channing, this ephemeral serio-comedy elicits chuckles and
choked-back tears in a pleasant, feel-good atmosphere. (Adult situations.)
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