American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
“To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday” is one of those movies in which nosy but well-meaning relatives try to force a reluctant family member to embrace a truth that is obvious to everyone except him. In this case, the truth is that we cannot allow ourselves to be paralyzed forever by grief over the death of a loved one. Why do I always root for the recalcitrant family member? The movie takes place two years to the day after Gillian (Michelle Pfeiffer) fell from the mast of a sailboat and died. It is also her birthday. Her husband, David (Peter Gallagher), since then has lived as a recluse on Nantucket Island with his 16-year-old daughter Rachel (Claire Danes). She suspects that he fantasizes his wife is still alive, and goes for long walks and talks on the beach with her. Rachel is correct.
To observe “Gillian's Day,” as it is known in the family, Gillian's sister Esther (Kathy Baker) and her husband, Paul Bruce Altman), arrive with a female friend named Kevin (Wendy Crewson). She is intended as a blind date, although when she finds out it is Gillian's Day, she wants to return immediately to the mainland--and so she should, since she plays such an unnecessary role in the drama to follow.
The movie, written by David E. Kelley and directed by Michael Pressman, is well-versed in the cinematic symptoms of excessive grief. David drives too fast, gets in fights with other motorists, plays the radio too loud and goes off a lot by himself. Esther believes it's time for him to get a grip on himself. Worse, she plans to sue for custody of Rachel, whom she fears is having an inadequate adolescence because of having to spend the offseason on Nantucket.
The movie cannot see that Esther is a deranged nuisance who should mind her own business, that David is entitled to his grief, that Rachel is happy living on the island, and that if Gillian appears to David, so much the better. (She also appears to us, and since we can see and hear her I guess she is “really” there, which gives David an excellent reason for not wanting to leave).