To Gillian on her 37th Birthday (1996) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

Warning: No spoilers, but Freddie Prinze Jr alert.

"To Gillian" is one of those movies that seems to be targeted most directly at the "teenage girl" market.

Gillian was a devoted wife of 18 years who died on her 35th birthday in a freak boating accident. In the subsequent two years, her husband has not been able to let her go. He still talks to her and has a swim with her every night. Nothing too harmful about that, because he knows it isn't real, but his reclusive island existence is starting to have a significant effect on his young daughter, who is torn between her loyalty and devotion to her genuinely loving father and her need to have him "move on".

This story all takes place during a weekend - "Gillian's weekend" - the anniversary of her birth (37 years) and her death (2 years). It is a celebration carrying on Gillian's birthday traditions, in which they build sand castles, dress up formally in prom clothes, sing their most hated songs on the Karaoke machine, and enjoy many other fine commemorations reminiscent of TV sitcom situations.

In addition to the father and daughter, also along on this weekend are: a horny local girl, Gillian's sister and her husband, a divorced woman that the sister hopes to fix up with the widower, and Freddie Prinze Jr with his nose pierced.

I thought that the script had a couple of problems.

  • I kept trying to figure out why the "fix up" woman was attached to the plot, as she served no apparent purpose, and had no developed or defined personality characteristics.  She was so bland that I didn't even recognize her from one scene to another. "Who is that woman, again?", I would think. "Oh, yeah, that's the set-up woman."
  • In addition, both the grieving husband and the sister, who developed a tense conflict over the fate of the daughter, were kind of irritating, and I didn't like either of them very much. The script really needed to introduce Dennis Miller as the sarcastic cousin, and let him note that they were both out of touch with reality.
But the script also had some good thoughts.
  • Although he was a tad on the loony side, the husband was happier in his imaginary relationship with his dead wife (played by Michelle Pfeiffer) than the sister was in her real relationship with her live husband. Is a great relationship with a dead woman worse than a mediocre relationship with a living one? The guy really couldn't see any good reason to move from one to the other.
  • The author tried to get us thinking about why the sister was trying to get custody of the daughter away from the widower. Was it because she really cared about her niece, or because she couldn't get over her intense jealousy at being loved so much less than her sister, even after sis's death?


Claire Danes (once) and Laurie Fortier (twice) showed their buns in thong bikinis.
Ultimately, I thought the film was watchable, despite not being my kind of film. The reason for that was the complex and realistic portrait of the daughter. Although both her father and her aunt were full of it, and I couldn't believe them as real people with credible motivations, the daughter character was fleshed out nicely, simultaneously loyal to and upset by her father, simultaneously clinging to girlhood while excited by the changes in her life. Claire Danes also brought a genuine, matter-of-fact quality to the character which I found appealing.

It is interesting to see a megastar like Michelle Pfeiffer used in a minor role. Although she is undoubtedly the biggest star and arguably the greatest talent in the cast, she doesn't have much to do as the dead wife. Remember, she is playing a figment of her husband's imagination, so her only job was to act idealized. There was no need to create a real person, since the character is simply a voice in the husband's head, and will therefore not have to engage in any moments of harsh conflict or great emotional depth. Pfeiffer certainly does radiate beauty and charm whenever she's on screen, and the audience is therefore able to see why the husband can't let go of her memory, so the casting was undeniably successful. On the other hand, it seems to me that hiring Michelle Pfeiffer for a film's least important role is about like paying Mike Piazza a few million per year to be your bullpen catcher.

Special note for guys only: although it is watchable if your significant other forces the issue, it is probably not the film of choice for the estrogen-challenged among us, based upon the following characteristics:

  • No beer drinking
  • No weapons
  • No uncovered breasts
  • No rugby, football, boxing or other rough, manly sports
  • No large, powerful vehicles
  • Unmanly karaoke performances of Leo Sayre songs in wimpy falsettos by guys in white prom tuxes
  • Grown men engaged in delicate, advanced sand castle construction
  • Freddie Prinze Jr

'nuff said.

DVD info from Amazon.

  • no widescreen

  • no meaningful features

I received this very strange recommendation at


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The Critics Vote

  • General consensus: about two stars. Ebert 2/4, Berardinelli 2.5/4,

The People Vote ...

  • with their dollars: domestic gross $4 million.
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a C-. Average weeper or maybe slightly below that level, but with enough redeeming virtues and modest laughs that it will not sicken you guys to sit through it with your date.

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