After establishing a reputation for quality, The Hallmark Hall of Fame films have been pretty lame lately. (Not pointing the finger, but the slide coincides with the franchise moving from CBS to ABC, ahem.) I won't go so far as to say that the bad times are over because of "The Makeover" (Sunday, 9 p.m. ABC), but I'll say things are definitely improving.
The movie stars Julia Stiles as Hannah Higgins, a smart, uptight, education consultant and reformer. When we meet Higgins, she's finding out from her friend and partner Colleen (Camryn Manheim) that she's lost a race for a congressional seat to a former TV weatherman. It's a galling lost for Higgins who is serious to a fault and a stickler for proper English. Those qualities make her come across as unlikeable and a know-it-all, not at all the kind of person voters feel they could have a beer with. In a bad mood after her concession speech, Higgins lashes out at beer vendor Elliot Doolittle (David Walton), belittling him for his broad Boston accent and use of slang.
A year later, the congressional seat unexpectedly opens up again and Higgins considers another run. But it's clear her negatives haven't gone away. Meanwhile, a sales job that Doolittle wants opens up; he approaches Higgins about helping him with his speech, in hopes that that will help him get the promotion. She turns him down, but gets the idea that she could turn a guy like him into a viable candidate. She and Colleen bet on it. A project is born.
Hopefully, the names Doolittle and Higgins ring a bell and you've figured out that this is a play on "Pygmalion" (or "My Fair Lady") with a gender twist on the characters and modern elements added. Among those modern elements is Hollywood's new found love of Boston Southies, especially the women. Blame the movie "The Fighter"; these days, the Southie woman -- feisty, tough, loving, protective, charmingly criminal -- is all the rage. (Don't worry sassy black woman, as long as there are flamboyant gay men, you'll still have a place in pop culture.) Filling that role are Allie (Frances Fisher), Doolittle's shady mother and Bonnie (Georgia Lyman), his sister.
The film is mostly light-hearted, and sometimes has broad comic elements, but in the end, of course, it's a romantic comedy. I'll give it credit for not being afraid to make Higgins really prickly. Stiles and Walton don't have much chemistry, but each is good in their roles; honestly, Higgins is so awful sometimes I can't see Doolittle coming around. Both of their characters feel authentic. Fisher goes for it, as the overly bottle red headed and hot-tempered mother. Lyman and Manheim both are stabilizing forces that add nice notes of compassion to the piece.
"The Makeover" isn't genius, but it's nicely done. May the next HHOF movie take another step forward on the road to its prior quality standard.