Grade: D-

Early on in “The Amati Girl,” one of the four grown sisters in an Italian Catholic Philadelphia clan–an aspiring singer, as it happens–croons away in a club while her siblings, widowed mother, brothers-in-law, nieces, nephews, aunts and uncles, and current beau look on. She’s painfully bad, and her relatives can only react with stunned silence. It’s a moment with which viewers of Anne DeSalvo’s preachy faith and family flick can easily identify, because while it’s easy to see the good intentions behind the project, the result is so clumsy and heavy-handed that it’s difficult to sit through without giving in to derisive laughter. DeSalvo doesn’t seem to understand that there’s a difference between what warms the heart and what burns it.

The screenplay–DeSalvo’s first–was a finalist in a Sundance writing competition, which can only make one wonder about the quality of the thousands which were judged inferior. The central figures are the quartet of sisters, but they’re surrounded by a vast assortment of spouses and other relatives, and virtually everybody has some problem to overcome. Grace (Mercedes Ruehl) is overtaxed by family demands, and her husband Joe (Paul Sorvino) is an inconsiderate boor to whom she always defers, to the chagrin of two of her siblings. Christine (Sean Young) is separated from workaholic hubby Paul (Jamey Sheridan), who’s not sufficiently involved in the life of his ballet-dancing daughter. Denise (Dinah Manoff) is a gadabout single girl who won’t commit to her perfect boyfriend Lawrence (Mark Harmon). And Dolores (Lily Knight) is mentally disabled, we’re told, because the women’s mother, widowed Dolly (Cloris Leachman) fell down while chasing Christine during her pregnancy. Dolores, despite her difficulties, desperately wants a beau, while Dolly, pining for her late husband, spends most of her time making her funeral arrangements. And as if all of these character jostling for attention weren’t enough, we also have to deal with two elderly aunts, Dolly’s sisters, played by Edith Fields and Lee Grant. The fact that the latter’s character is named Splendora is a dead giveaway that’s she’s meant to be the colorful, free-spirited one.

“The Amati Girls” isn’t merely a Lifetime movie, however; as befits its Christian distribution company’s name, it’s basically a didactic piece about learning to accept the decisions of divine providence. So it’s really about making lemonade out of lemons–about overcoming the heartaches that intrude in events, finding the joy in simple things and coming to realize What’s Really Important in Life. To insure that we get the point, the script resorts to the most obvious of means. A motif of the piece is that Grace is an expert in patron saints for all seasons, for example, never hesitating to point out (especially to Dolores) which one it’s proper to pray to in any circumstance. (Given the quality of the writing, the saint overseeing the picture was most likely Jude, the patron of hopeless causes.) And occasionally we’re treated to a bit of dialogue that sets out some piece of homespun religiosity quite shamelessly, as when when one character inquires “Why do we pray?” and we listen to the response, or another, at a time of personal tragedy, demands “What do I have to be happy about?” and others happily tell her. But perhaps the most uncomfortable moment amidst these near-howlers comes when poor Dolores (played far too broadly by Knight) is told that someday her prince will come because “there’s a top for every pot.” (When the inevitable boyfriend-to-be finally appears, one almost wishes the cast would break out in an ensemble rendition of Cole Porter’s “You’re the Top” to celebrate the fact. At least that would be intentionally funny.) And from a dramatic standpoint the screenplay resorts to the most crushingly shopworn devices to push the plot along: this is one of those movies in which, should somebody complain of a headache, it’s only a matter of time before it proves a terminal condition. Unfortunately, it also gives in to the worst sort of stereotyping. A trio of permanent fixtures at a local bar have a kind of nostalgic charm, but the flagrantly swishy ballet teacher is a caricature that should have been permanently retired.

Still, some good performers were attracted to the material, and their presence makes it seem a trifle less inept than it would have otherwise. Ruehl is always interesting, even in second- or third-rate projects, and both Harmon and Sheridan are commendably low-key. Even Leachman and Sorvino, despite their penchant for overdoing things, deliver a few poignant moments. Young and Manoff, on the other hand, are simply nondescript. All the actors’ efforts, however, can’t alter the fact that “The Amati Girls,” however well-meaning, is stuffed with enough sitcommy laughter-and-tears moments to have filled an entire season of a show like “Eight is Enough.” And that’s entirely too much.

One further piece of information. Although “The Amati Girls” is being released to theatres, arrangements have already been made to broadcast it on the Fox Family Network just a couple of months after its opening. The small screen might well prove a more hospitable venue for it–especially if it’s shown on a Sunday. We would therefore counsel the Christian virtue of patience to anyone interested in seeing it.