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Television Review

White plays it straight in syrupy ‘Valentine’

Betty White, Jennifer Love Hewitt, and Sean Faris star in “The Lost Valentine.’’ White plays the widow of a Navy pilot who has been missing since World War II. Betty White, Jennifer Love Hewitt, and Sean Faris star in “The Lost Valentine.’’ White plays the widow of a Navy pilot who has been missing since World War II. (Erik Heinila/CBS)
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / January 28, 2011

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Betty White — surely you’ve heard of her. And heard of her and heard of her.

The 89-year-old comic actress from “The Golden Girls’’ and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show’’ has had an extraordinary pop-culture resurgence in recent years, with guest appearances all over TV and in the movies, with the sitcom “Hot in Cleveland’’ on TV Land, and with her hosting job on “Saturday Night Live.’’ The genre of elderly sex humor has never had it quite so good.

On Sunday night, however, White extends her ubiquity in a different direction in a Hallmark Hall of Fame production called “The Lost Valentine.’’ There’s no humor in this CBS weeper, which will air at 9 on Channel 4. It’s as Hallmark as you can possibly get without doing shots of corn syrup with a honey chaser. White doesn’t even get to slip in a covert wink as the widow of a Navy pilot who has been missing since World War II. She’s the dramatic center of the entire movie, which is based on a novel by James Michael Pratt.

White’s Caroline Thomas was pregnant when she said goodbye to her husband, Neil, 65 years ago. She gave him a homemade valentine and waved to him as the train left the station. Now she visits the same train station every year on that date, as a gesture of faith, hope, and, frankly, delusion. “Missing is not dead,’’ she insists at one point. The movie repeatedly flashes back to World War II, so we can see the young Caroline (Meghann Fahy) and the young Neil (Billy Magnussen) fall in love before he leaves to serve the country.

Cut to: Jennifer Love Hewitt as a human-interest TV reporter named Susan who has a few things to learn about life and love. As she does a news segment on Caroline’s touching annual trek to the train station, her cynicism is tested. She finds herself drawn to Caroline’s undying love — oh yeah, and to Caroline’s extremely handsome grandson Lucas, played by the Tom Cruise-y Sean Faris. She already has a photographer beau, but he’s always away on assignment, and their relationship is strained.

Will Susan learn big lessons from her time following Caroline? Will she and Lucas get together? I think you know the answers to those questions, and indeed any other questions that might arise in “The Lost Valentine.’’ The story is completely predictable. And the flashbacks are such painful romantic cliches, they fail to add much emotional substance to Caroline’s epic devotion to Neil in the present tense. They’re so artificial and saccharine, they undermine any potential connections viewers might want to make to today’s war widows.

No, the only reason to tune in for “The Lost Valentine’’ is, of course, Betty White. It’s just nice to see her doing a role that enables her to bring her age and experience into play. She’s a funny lady for sure, but she can also nicely manage gravitas and vulnerability. She might even be able to bring a little tear to your eye, if you can see beyond the script.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit www.boston.com/ae/tv/blog.

THE LOST VALENTINE Starring: Betty White, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Sean Faris, Billy Magnussen

On: CBS, Channel 4

Time: Sunday, 9-11