“Manna From Heaven” begins with a fairy tale dream: money, baskets of it, blow out of a truck into the sky and rain gently down on a family who needs it. After scooping the stuff up with understandable relish, the eccentric relatives sit around the kitchen table in a half hearted discussion of whether to keep it or give it back. The camera lingers just long enough to give the audience a small fix on each character and then jumps ahead thirty years. We meet them again, their early personality traits now ingrained, their standards of living modest.
Ed and Bunny still hustle money, Tony and Rita run a dance school, Inez is still the family brain, and Helen, mother to all, longs for her first car. Teresa, who seems quite literally to have been dipped in a vat of melted sugar, is the only thing she could be: a nun. She’s a nun who has had an awakening, an epiphany that commands her to act: the family must return the money that fell from the sky thirty years earlier. What she once thought was a gift from God, she now thinks of as an ethical compromise. Even if she can convince the others, who would they give it to?
Since not one of them has made money to speak of, they decide to hold a raffle and a dance contest to raise the cash which will be given back according to Teresa’s plan, a plan that will lead them all from monotony to transformation. Each will realize a dream before our eyes.
Where is the fizz in all this fun? Surely it should bubble, considering a cast that includes Shelley Duval, Jill Eikenberry, Louise Fletcher, Shirley Jones and Cloris Leachman, all of whom seem to be reaching for humor that just misses. They labor mightily, often overacting as they try to sprout the wings the movie needs for takeoff. The movie is full of good actors whose lines aren’t up to them. It’s inescapable: we have a writing problem. That said, it is still an entertaining evening, but think of it in terms of adjectives like pleasant rather than uproarious.
Issuing forth from a company called Five Sisters Productions, the movie is indeed a family affair. Gabrielle and Maria Burton directed, Gabrielle wrote the script, Ursula plays Theresa, the oddball nun, and an army of Burtons is listed in the credits. Big laughs and heartfelt empathy are drawn by Faye Grant as Rita Annunciata and Harry Groener as her long suffering, sweet natured husband Tony. The couple has worked diligently for years teaching wooden people how to dance while Rita still dreams – full time – of winning a dance contest with her beloved Tony.
The Burtons come through in the end with a series of wrap-up scenes that bring plenty of smiles. It’s a movie that opens and ends with humor and style, so the somewhat long middling stretch is worth the effort.
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