I developed a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach within the first few minutes of Waltzing Anna. It's that dimly unpleasant feeling I get when I'm watching a film that I wish was going to be good, but realize it's not going to be -- and that I'm going to have to write a review about it, like it or not. When you can predict the plot-line of the entire film accurately within the first couple minutes, that's never a good sign; when that plot is suspiciously like that of another (better) film, it's even worse.
Here are the basic elements of Waltzing Anna, which I had pegged before the opening credits were through: (1) Rich, unscrupulous doctor, who doesn't really care about patients and is only in it for the money; (2) Through a somewhat-contrived circumstance, the doctor is forced to a rural setting where he feels out of place, to tend to an assortment of patients he doesn't care about; (3) Somewhere around about the 20-minute or so mark, the doctor will meet a beautiful woman who lives in said rural setting. She will be smart, lovely, and way out of his league, but he, being the arrogant jerk that he is, won't realize this right away ...
(4) At about the midway point, something will happen that will cause the doctor to reassess his otherwise long-standing lack of concern for patients; (5) As the doctor bonds with the patient population, he begins to realize how wrong he was all these years (cue violins) and becomes a Changed Man, at which point: (6) the previously unattainable Smart, Beautiful Woman will realize she misjudged the doctor, and they will fall in love; (7) as it nears the time when the doc will be able to leave and go back to his life, he will have a conflict pulling him to stay and be the good guy; (8) guess what he'll decide?
If that sounds a whole heck of a lot like Doc Hollywood (a much better movie in every respect) well, that's because Waltzing Anna basically lifts the basic plot structure of that film, reworks it a little bit, throws in some concern around the issue of elder care, and calls it a day. That's not to say that elder care isn't an important issue -- it is. It's way too important an issue, in fact, to be a side dish in an otherwise uninspiring and predictable romantic comedy like this. It's almost as if writer-director Doug Bollinger and his co-writer (and star) Robert Capelli, Jr. dove into the Book of Cliched Movie Plots and copied the plot structure for this film directly from there.
The doc in the movie is Dr. Charlie Keegan (Capelli, sporting what might just be the worst male hairstyle in the history of cinema), a Harvard Med School grad who only became a doctor so he could make lots of money. The good doctor gets nailed for insurance fraud by the medical board, and is sentenced to serve six months working in an upstate New York nursing home. Off Keegan goes to face the horrors of upstate New York, where he meets the corrupt head of Shady Pines, former used-car salesman J.D. Reno (Grant Shaud) and his evil-nurse cohort, Nurse Potter (Gordana Rashovich) -- and, sure enough, right about at the 20-minute mark, the smart and lovely Nurse Jill (Emmanuelle Chriqui).
Then we have the nursing home and the residents there, who, when Keegan shows up, are behaving more like the patients in Dudley Moore's Crazy People than like patients at any nursing home I've ever spent much time in. We have the two sexy old broads who do chair aerobics and come on to all the old codgers; the old guy who thinks he's a vampire; the guy who plays dead for fun; the guy whose son never comes to visit, but he dresses up for him every weekend anyhow; the guy who keeps trying to run away. And then there's Anna (Betsy Palmer, who horror buffs will recognize as Jason Vorhees' mom from Friday the 13th), found wandering the side of a freeway, who doesn't know who she is or where she's from. Mo (Pat Hingle), the guy who keeps trying to run away, has a soft spot for Anna, and soon, with the help of the newly soft-hearted Dr. Keegan and the lovely Nurse Jill, starts to bring Anna around. Just as things look happy for the elderly pair, enter the dragon, in the form of Anna's uber-bitch daughter, Barbara (Paige Turco), who swoops in with heavy-handed overacting and forces her mother away against her will.
If this were a well-made film with particularly astounding acting, it might be easier to overlook the predictability of the plot. The script, unfortunately, is actually the least of Waltzing Anna's problems. The acting, with few exceptions, is wooden -- whether that's the fault of the one-dimensional characters or the direction, is hard to say. Some of the older performers, most notably Pat Hingle as Mo, do an able enough job, but those performances are overshadowed by the film's problems. The staging of the scenes in many cases feels unbearably contrived and awkward (a scene at the local bar was particularly painful to watch, as was a later musical montage sequence that dragged on way longer than it should have). The cinematography was ugly, with serious lighting issues in some scenes. In one scene in particular, the lighting was so bad that it almost obliterated the features on a little girl's face. The sound was off as well: In some scenes there was this hollow effect going on, the kind of sound you get on really cheap sets sometimes, where the plywood bounces the sound back oddly. I don't know what caused it in this case, but it was certainly distracting.
To be honest, I feel a bit like I'm mugging an old lady on a street corner even writing this review, because I believe co-writer Capelli truly had the best of intentions. He was inspired by watching his aging grandfather struggle with medical care issues to write a film that addressed the issue of elder care -- but he wanted to "keep it light", and that, I think is part of the problem. There's too much focus on trying to make a "Serious Issue-Lite" film here, and the end result comes across like a Lifetime or Hallmark movie. Actually, maybe that's what they should have aimed for here, rather than a film intended for theatrical release. If Waltzing Anna was a Hallmark Presentation or Lifetime Special, the older crowd would probably eat it up. The plot is just too predictable and the production too mediocre to be up on the big screen. The dedication to Capelli's grandfather in the closing credits is touching, but preceded as it is by the cheesy ending that ties everything up in a neat little package to the Muzack strains of "What a Wonderful World," it just wasn't enough to rescue the film.