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Manna from Heaven

THE CASH, MY SWEET

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Set in Buffalo, where it was filmed, and written, produced and directed by a quintet of sisters named Burton and their parents, the cloyingly home-grown Manna from Heaven revolves around an extended family of siblings, in-laws, neighbors and "freeloaders" who get rich quick one day in the innocent ersatz 1950s when more than $20,000 in small unmarked bills fly out of a passing truck and drift onto the lawn during an afternoon social event.

At the time, Theresa is a little girl whom everyone believes is blessed. So naturally, when she declares the money to be a gift from God, they do what any God-fearing, working-class Americans would do: close the door, pull down the blinds, and divvy up the loot. It nets them each about $3,000 -- a year's pay, one observes -- and then they get on with their lives.

Jump to the dreary ersatz '70s, where Theresa (Ursula Burton) is a do-good convent nun who flouts trouble by selling a church rug to buy food for the needy. But when Theresa gets a rather freaky message from God, she summons the money people back to Buffalo, where they stage a ballroom dancing contest and raffle off a vintage car to raise back the money (which they've all squandered) and return it -- even though they still don't know whose money they took.

Manna from Heaven may sound quaint, but I'd recommend you put on your hip boots before attempting to slog through it. Here's a movie where an invalid old crank (Cloris Leachman) is revivified by her successful scheme to steal money donated to the elderly so she can buy raffle tickets for herself. And she wins -- but only because two other people cheat. I can't imagine the Catholic Church will find this to be anything but distasteful, or at the very least, secular.

Sisters Gabrielle and Maria Burton co-directed Manna from Heaven, mother Gabrielle wrote it, and dad Roger co-produced along with all five Burton girls. The movie's familiar actors are cozily enjoyable, if largely unchallenged: Frank Gorshin and Shirley Jones as aging grifters, Seymour Cassel as a wealthy car salesman who romances lonely hairdresser Jill Eikenberry, Wendie Malick as a sardonic Las Vegas card dealer, Austin Pendleton as a whacked-out nursing home patient, and Louise Fletcher as, well, Big Nun.

Manna from Heaven claims to believe four-square in maintaining "hope" despite the rigged shell game we call life, and it seems to say that no matter how hard you try, it's OK, as long as you get what you want. This might be offensive if it weren't so hobbled by banal good intentions. And while the cast keeps it light, only Leachman's disturbingly plaintive character -- old, bitter, uneducated and, like the rest of them, clinging to a fairy-tale theology -- offers the slightest saving grace.


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