This review showed up within the first few months of The Reel Thing, the movies reviews and news show I co-hosted on WWSP-90FM, from 1990 – 1993. I was clearly still adjusting my parameters on the star rating, since there are an awful lot of complaints leveled to land on the clear recommendation of three stars. In my modern fact-checking, I discovered I used the wrong name for the young actress Hillary Wolf, so it’s sort of a mess all around. That bit of research also brought me to the tidbit that Wolf went on to be a judo champion of some renown, including two trips to the Olympics. I can also report that the episode of our radio show that contained this review closed with Ziggy Marley’s “Give a Little Love,” chosen because of its inclusion on the soundtrack to the widely detested Emilio Estevez film Men at Work, which was covered by my cohort in the home video segment. I, thankfully, have never viewed that cinematic endeavor.  

Shirley MacLaine may be just one more performance away from perfecting the role of the loud, eccentric, no-nonsense, and ultimately big-hearted upper-middle-aged woman. I don’t know if this is the only kind of role she gets offered or if it’s the only kind she enjoys playing, but she’s at it again in her newest release, Waiting for the Light. This time out, MacLaine’s character is a former circus performer who’s brought her brand of magic to Chicago in the early nineteen-sixties. With assistance from her young niece and nephew, MacLaine performs various scams and stunts, including a gruesome version of the old “saw the lady in half trick” at children’s birthday parties. Their fun and excitement seem to come to an end when mom Teri Garr moves the whole family out west to run a beat-up diner she’s inherited. The kids and MacLaine manage to refrain from wild stunts until they decide the nasty neighbor next door deserves to get a scare thrown into him. What he actually gets, however, is the belief that he’s witnessed a miracle, and the film quickly becomes a satire on religious fanatics, all the way up to the contrived ending that’s just packed with melodrama.

The setting of the diner and the cast of characters around it all seem destined for sitcomville — picture Meredith Baxter-Birney as the mom and Katherine Helmond as the eccentric aunt. None of them are given enough time of personality to become real honest people. But some of the digs at religious fanatics do manage to hit the target accurately enough to produce a laugh, as do the practical jokes the kids pull in school. Both of the kids do a fine job here, especially Hillary Wolf as Emily, and Teri Garr is just as close to perfecting the slightly frazzled mom role as MacLaine is to her role of choice. The film is best if real brief scenes that are thrown in almost as a second thought. The cross-country drive is filled with just enough backseat battles and attempts at family fun to make it ring true, and shots of the two kids playing around the diner with inner tubes or on top of old broken down trucks effectively demonstrate the imagination of these youngsters. If you can ignore the film’s poor ending and ineffectively subplot involving nuclear fears generated by the Cuban Missile Crisis, Waiting for the Light is a quite effective light comedy.

3 stars, out of 4.

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