This is essentially a home movie–produced by five sisters, directed by two of them, and starring another. It was written by their mother, and their parents appear in the picture, along with other relatives. It’s even being distributed privately, literally carried from city to city and shown in select theatres in the hopes it will catch on. (In most cases, one of the girls will actually pop into the auditorium before and after each screening to talk with the audience.) There’s a certain homely charm to all this; unfortunately, it doesn’t make the picture any better–it’s a feeble attempt at a family comedy that never transcends its home-made roots.
The premise is quite a silly one. A group of relatives and friends in a lower-middle class Buffalo neighborhood strike it rich in the early seventies when a pile of greenbacks comes raining down on their street one day; the cash, as it happens, had been ejected from a passing van. The bills are distributed among the finders with a mutual agreement to mention the literal windfall to no one. Flash forward thirty years. One of the partners to the plot, a very religiously-minded young girl, is now a dedicated nun named Theresa (Ursula Burton, one of the five sisters)–so dedicated, indeed, that she frequently nonpluses her superiors with her rash acts of charity. Theresa now decides that the money was intended by God only as a loan, which must now be repaid by all the recipients with interest. At her urging the others all reassemble in Buffalo to work out a plan to raise the needed funds–something that eventually involves not only a weird raffle but a dance contest, too. Unfortunately, two of the participants–a Las Vegas couple played by Frank Gorshin and Shirley Jones–turn out to be crooks who aim to take any funds raised for themselves. But rest assured that despite all the difficulties–which include a mysterious investigator and many supremely unlikely twists and coincidences–everything turns out well.
Given the combination of preciousness and utter implausibility that fills the script, as well as the fact that this is a bare-bones production, a surprisingly large numbers of veterans have been attracted to the project. In addition to Gorshin (who mugs ferociously throughout) and Jones (much more restrained), we have Cloris Leachman (as an ill-tempered old broad, until she’s transformed by the power of goodness), Seymour Cassel (as an inexplicably generous car dealer), Shelley Duvall (as a corrupt cop), Louise Fletcher (as a nun) and Austin Pendleton (as a weird mental patient). Jerry Orbach’s disembodied voice even makes an appearance at the close. (The presence of the mayor of Buffalo toward the close is far more understandable.) The lesser, probably local, performers look decidedly amateurish by comparison; Burton, for example, is stiff and uncomfortable as Theresa. On the technical side, the picture is no better than okay.
It must be admitted that there are a few moments of memorable unintentional humor in “Manna from Heaven” (not even counting the reference to a television special by Siegfried and Roy, which–given recent history–should probably be overdubbed or deleted). The best probably comes when there’s a scene in which Leachman complains of never having won anything in her life besides a ceramic pig when she’d wanted the first prize–a real ham–and is told by a sympathetic hearer “There might be a real ham around the next corner”–upon which, as if on cue, Gorshin makes a particularly overbearing reappearance. Such accidental pleasures can’t make up, however, for a flimsy, overcomplicated little comedy that–despite the title–is hardly a gift to audiences, divine or otherwise.