Movie Reviews

Holiday 2014: Borrowed Hearts (1997)

This is another entry in our Holiday 2014 Review Series. If the weather outside is frightful, warm up by talking Christmas movies with us!

Borrowed Hearts is the equivalent of a stocking stuffer; it’s not that perfect gift you can’t wait to unwrap, but it’s a small treat that brings a smile on Christmas morning. Single mom Kathleen Russell (Roma Downey) is a factory worker, living paycheck-to-paycheck to support herself and her daughter Zoey (Sarah Rosen Fruitman). Sam Field (Eric McCormack), the wealthy industrialist who owns the factory, is a playboy who has no interest in getting married or having kids. Sam plans to sell the factory to Mexican tycoon Javier Del Campo (Hector Elizondo), but Del Campo is only interested in doing business with traditional family men. Desperate to close the deal, Sam hires Kathleen and Zoey to pose as his wife and daughter to impress Del Campo.  Heartwarming holiday hilarity ensues (okay, not so much “hilarity” as “occasional amusement,” but there’s tons of heartwarmth).

Borrowed Hearts has a personal significance to me. My father saw it when it first aired, in 1997, and liked it a great deal. In subsequent years, whenever the Christmas season began and I would go out shopping, he’d ask me to keep an eye out for a DVD copy. I looked – though, if I’m honest, probably not particularly hard – but I never saw one, and he never did either. In 2007, my father passed away, and I mostly forgot about the movie. Then, three years later around Christmastime, I stumbled across the title in my online wanderings and remembered how much Dad wanted to own a copy. I went to Amazon and, sure enough, it had just been released on DVD (or re-released, to be more accurate; there was a previous DVD release put out by a group called Feature Films For Families, but the movie was edited so as to eliminate sexual content and some cursing – both of which are far more prevalent in any family sitcom – but, since then, Echo Bridge got hold of the rights and made available the unabridged version). I bought it right then and there, and for the past few years, Borrowed Hearts has been a Christmas tradition of mine. For me, it was like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, with the son completing a quest begun by his father. It’s silly, but it felt like one last thing I could do for Dad.

All of this is to say, mine may not be the most objective perspective on Borrowed Hearts; in fact, it’s definitely not. But I’m going to try to divorce my personal attachment from the movie and give it a fair shake (ignoring that my even bothering to review an obscure TV movie is probably based on my attachment to it). So, probably far too long down the page, the film itself…

*Spoilers*

Borrowed Hearts is about three people getting for Christmas what they thought they’d never have. Sam doesn’t want a family, and at first, it seems like that’s because he enjoys sleeping with lots of beautiful women, but the truth is more complicated. Since he was a child, Sam was never shown love, particularly by his father. As a result, he’s never learned how to love others, and he’s resigned himself to being alone forever. This is symbolized by the baseball glove story; like the glove his father gave him as a child, love never fit Sam. It’s also reflected in his attitude toward selling the factory. Sam wants to go through with the sale even though he knows that when the factory moves to Mexico, most of his employees will lose their jobs. He keeps saying they’ll be getting severance packages, but because he keeps himself at a distance, he can’t really understand how closing the factory will hurt them. Like women and children, he doesn’t know how to care about them because he never learned.

Kathleen, by contrast, knows how to love, but she won’t let herself. The last time she trusted someone with her heart, he abandoned her and Zoey, and she won’t put herself or her daughter in that position again. Her art is the manifestation of this, the dream she had and gave up for Zoey while her ex-husband took off to pursue his every flight of fancy. She was never supported, so she has to support herself, both financially and emotionally. On the ice skating rink, Del Campo observes that she’s “so assured and in control, as in all things.” If she doesn’t open herself to anyone, she can’t be hurt again. So she forgoes any hope of a relationship, instead pledging to take care of Zoey and protect them both from heartache.

Borrowed Hearts

Zoey just wants her father to come home. Since he’s been gone, she invents fantastical stories to tell people, a coping mechanism to mask her insecurities. In truth, she wonders what she did to push him away, and she acts out because she thinks she’s inherently an unlovable child; as Sam believes he isn’t able to love, Zoey fears no one could love her. That (aside from the obvious wishes of a child of divorce) is why she wants her father back so desperately – if he returns to Zoey and her mother, maybe it’ll mean she isn’t a bad kid after all.

It’s through their interactions with each other that the characters change. The game of Twister gets Sam to realize that he’s missing the best things in life while forsaking a family, and gets Kathleen to let her guard down and have fun with a man for the first time in ages. While ice skating, Sam stands aside, content to watch others enjoy their families while he remains alone; as with love, he doesn’t know how to skate. When Zoey prods him, though, he quickly gets the hang of it; all he needed was the right partner. Kathleen, meanwhile, is skating very assuredly, until she unexpectedly topples and has no one to catch her. When Sam and Zoey tell each other about their unloving fathers, they take comfort in each other’s shared pain, finding for the first time a willingness to trust someone with their demons; meanwhile, Kathleen listens and begins to wonder if maybe Zoey needs someone besides her mother in whom she can confide (“But don’t tell her I know, ‘cause it would make her feel bad.”), and if, maybe, beyond all expectations, Sam could be that person. Kathleen sets up the factory Christmas party to force Sam into seeing his employees as human beings who depend on him (as opposed to “dollar signs,” as his second-in-command Dave suggests). Sam prods Kathleen about her growing feelings for him and her insistence on denying them to protect herself, at the same time all but admitting his own longing.

As is the custom in a movie like Borrowed Hearts, everything comes to a head on Christmas morning. Zoey gives Sam a baseball glove that fits his hand because, in reality, she is the glove, the child who made him want a family. Sam gives Kathleen art supplies so she can begin painting again, a sign that he supports her and wants her to be happy. Sam decides not to sell the factory to Del Campo because he cares more about his employees than his bottom line. And when Zoey’s father shows up and leaves her once more, this time for good, Zoey climbs a tree (her go-to stunt when she wants to act out her hurt feelings), but this tree is much bigger than the one outside her old apartment – as this time she knows her father isn’t coming back – and she’s soon hanging from a branch, facing at once the cold, hard ground and her own uncertain future. But Sam gets her to trust him to catch her, to let go of her fantasy of a father and accept the one in front of her, the one who’s in her life because he wants to be. When Sam catches Zoey, it’s clearly the first of many falls from which she’ll emerge unscathed thanks to his love for her. Then they walk back into the house, now a family, to celebrate Christmas.

A lot of these kinds of movies rely on chance to further the plot (Kathleen and Zoey pass by Sam’s house just as he’s auditioning actors to play his wife and child; Del Campo decides to stay through Christmas, necessitating the ruse to continue into the holiday; Kathleen stumbles on the ice just as she’s thinking about how in control of her own life she is, etc.), but Borrowed Hearts makes this trope work by having Del Campo be an angel. It’s a little hokey, but it helps the story click. These conveniences aren’t mere happenstance, but the leads’ own personal Clarence guiding them on their path to happiness. It keeps certain elements from being too contrived. And, as Del Campo is their guardian angel, a pair of devils is on hand to push them in the wrong direction. Dave, Sam’s business associate (played a bit broadly by Shawn Alex Thompson), encourages the factory sale and constantly reminds Sam of his disdain for children. Zoey’s father – and Kathleen’s ex-husband – Jerry (Kevin Hicks, quite good at finding a glimmer of humanity in a creep who doesn’t see why family obligations should ruin his good time) is everything Sam fears he is, and he isn’t above using Sam and Kathleen’s arrangement to scam some money from a rich guy. But, as with so many bad eggs, these two inadvertently help good triumph: Dave’s forcing Sam together with Kathleen and Zoey ultimately puts an end to the sale he so desired, and Jerry’s selfishness gets Zoey to let him go and Sam to realize that he’s a better man than Kathleen’s ex.

The biggest problem with Borrowed Hearts is Zoey. It seems to be a combination of the writing and child actress Sarah Rosen Fruitman, but that is one annoying kid! We’re supposed to feel bad for her, and I ultimately did, but she doesn’t make it easy. It’s hard to find kids who can really act, I know, but she’s pretty grating. And her behavior is, I’m sorry, unacceptable. The scene where she destroys Sam’s office is supposed to make us feel bad for her, but I would share Sam’s anger under those circumstances. She tears up his cigars and shoots water over important papers, the latter after being told not to play around in his office. Those aren’t accidents; they’re being a brat, and I think portraying her as the victim in that instance sends the wrong message. And, while I understand the necessary symbolism, her tree-climbing habit is aggravating too (this is why I can’t be a parent; I have no patience for “acting out”). It’s not a deal-breaker in the long run, but Zoey is tough to take.

Borrowed Hearts

Del Campo can also be a little too much sometimes. He’s necessary for the plot of Borrowed Hearts, but he’s very bland as written. He also has a penchant for stating the obvious, pushing the characters along not just through his actions but through dictating what they should be feeling (the line to Kathleen that I quoted earlier, for example, while making the point, is a bit ham-handed, as is his follow-up). Everything he says that isn’t a suggestion is some kind of moral lesson. Hector Elizondo does what he can to give him a spark of personality, but the script should’ve made him a little livelier, as though he exists independent of Sam and Kathleen.

Luckily, Eric McCormack and Roma Downey are both excellent. It would have been easy to let the schmaltz speak for itself, but they both do some strong acting, letting Sam and Kathleen’s humanity shine through their flaws. Though the setup is contrived, the two leads always feel like real people. The scene where Sam tells his baseball glove story is a particularly great moment, where both of them can let their fears come out – Downey without speaking! – and they do a great job. This movie was filmed during Downey’s run on Touched by an Angel (which I never watched) and just before McCormack began his stint on Will and Grace (which I greatly enjoyed, at least for the first few seasons), and it’s clear why they were so successful on television. If they failed, so would the movie, and they keep Borrowed Hearts above water.

If you don’t like sentimental Christmas movies, Borrowed Hearts won’t change your mind. If you’re a fan of the season’s more sugary offerings, however, it’s a sweet movie with some surprisingly good acting from the two leads and a smart framing device that helps the many coincidences gel. The kid is annoying, and the subtext is sometimes not as sub as it could be – thanks mostly to the obvious and dull Del Campo – but if you go with it, it’ll give you a good shot of Christmas cheer.

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