We throw that phrase “Hallmark Movie” around like it’s a sweeping indictment, as if all comfort food romances and tear-jerkers were set at Christmas, or any film rated PG or PG-13 should simply be consigned to its own cable channel and forgotten.
But it’s a descriptor that needn’t carry all those connotations. Every now and then, a “Lost Husband” comes along, tells a simple story simply, with good actors and a director who know the virtues of having a light touch.
“The Lost Husband,” based on a Katherine Center novel, plays like the good pilot of a family-friendly TV series, a breakout for a couple of criminally-underused players, and rides the considerable charms of Josh Duhamel all the way to the finish line.
It’s a “fish out of water” dramedy about a widowed mom (Leslie Bibb) from Houston who takes her two kids and moves to a farm to get re-acquainted with the estranged aunt (Nora Dunn) she lost touch with long ago.
Libby’s putting on a brave front in that minivan, but the the wound is fresh, one she can help but cover in euphemisms. She “lost” her husband. A nosy and tactless feed store clerk (Herizen F. Guardiola) wants to know “where?” And of course, “How?”
“He’s just gone!”
Aunt Jean is the bluff, no-nonsense type. Never married her late “husband,” kept the farm. Libby has no money and no plan, which allows Jean to make her move.
“We don’t call’em pets. On a farm, they’re animals, and they all have a job!”
She railroads Libby into “her” plan. Her hired man “will teach you how to run the farm.”
“But it’s NEW Years’!”
“No holidays on a farm.”
Libby may be desperate, but she’s scrambling for an escape clause as she’s “not cut out for this.” And that “farm manager” is awfully quick to agree.
Here’s where “The Lost Husband” leaps from “OK, sure” to “I’m all in.” Duhamel is the very picture of gruff, dismiss-with-his-mouth-full charm as James O’Connor. We know the character’s function in all this — put the city girl down as he shows her the animals, be the manly “stick up for yourself” presence in her kid’s life, teach “skills to help’em survive the Apocalypse” and make all the other women jealous at the attention he pays Libby, at the very moment she most needs it.
If you’ve never seen him in this guise — the classic “romantic lead” in “Life as We Know It,” “Safe Haven” — bearded, gruff and cute — you’ll wonder where he’s been all these years. Hollywood doesn’t do romances or rom-coms, not much and not anymore. He’s been wasted in thrillers and garbage “Transformers” movies, when he should have been bearded and twinkling in movies and series like this.
The money moment — teaching libby how to milk the goats. She hears him singing, half-under his breath, and he flat-out tells her, “You gotta SING to’em.”
Oh no. Not happening. OK. Maybe. Eventually. When Libby finds her song and sings to the goats, picking Bill Withers’ “Lovely Day” to sing to the Nubians and La Manchas (goats) may be entirely too “on-the-nose.” But it’s perfect, and almost poignant as the film comes out a week after Withers’ death.
“The Lost Husband” takes on “forgive yourself” and “talk to your dead husband” messaging, as that impertinent cashier (Guardiola) turns out to have some California (psychic mumbo jumbo) about her, and her drawling, “I do hugs” dad (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) happens to be Aunt Jean’s longterm suitor.
There’s “closure” coming from big secrets about what was “lost” and Libby’s connection with her mom (Sharon Lawrence).
But the lightly abrasive way Bibb and Duhamel connect and the hurt hanging over most everybody lift this predictable dramedy out of the goat corral, pig pen and barn and into something perfectly serviceable and sweet and a cut or three above what you find on The Hallmark Channel.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some suggestive references
Cast: Leslie Bibb, Josh Duhamel, Nora Dunn, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Herizen F. Guardiola
Credits: Written and directed by Vicky Wight, based on a novel by Katherine Center. A Blue Fox release.
Running time: 1:48