THE TV MOVIE "Steel Magnolias"
WHEN | WHERE Premiering Sunday at 9 p.m. on Lifetime
WHAT IT'S ABOUT Based on the 1987 play by Robert Harling that was turned into the 1989 hit movie, this production has one outstanding difference -- the lead cast members are African-American. It's still about a group of tightly bonded Louisiana women. And it begins -- as did the movie -- on the wedding day of Shelby (Condola Rashad), and the action, such as it is, drifts over to the beauty parlor run by Truvy (Jill Scott), who hires Annelle (Adepero Oduye) as an assistant. Other friends arrive -- town grouch and dowager Ouiser (Alfre Woodard), Clairee (Phylicia Rashad) and finally M'Lynn (Queen Latifah), Shelby's mother.
Banter gives way to panic within minutes: Shelby, who is diabetic, goes into insulin shock, but she quickly recovers when she drinks a glass of orange juice. Harling's play was based on a tragedy in his own family, the death of his sister.
Julia Roberts, who played Shelby, Sally Field (M'Lynn), Dolly Parton (Truvy) and Shirley MacLaine (Ouiser) -- and sold a few million boxes of Kleenex in the process. Why invite comparisons and potentially negative ones? Easy answer: Lifetime got a very good cast, and Harling dusted off his old script for this version.
His adaptation is largely faithful, with some of the dialogue updated, along with the hairstyles. Shelby still says she'd rather have "30 minutes of something wonderful than a lifetime of nothing special." The ending has been dramatically altered, but the outcome remains the same. Tears, in other words, flow.
The racial component, meanwhile, is irrelevant except in one key respect: Harling's story of life's sweet moments bound to tragic ones has nothing to do with the color of one's skin, which is probably the point he wanted to make here. If so, great point, but the film still feels too often humorless, at times leaden, while the casting decisions are perplexing. Why not have Phylicia Rashad play M'Lynn, as mother to her real-life daughter? Latifah here is more like a big sister.
BOTTOM LINE Still sweet and sad, but often dour and slow, too.