From time to time critics have been heard using the phrase "disease-of-the-week movie," most often with some condescension and almost always about made-for-TV films. There’s understandable reason for this–so many films that focus on disease become cloyingly sentimental and manipulative or, sometimes, outrageously exploitative. Still, fairness dictates that each new movie be evaluated for itself, rather than for its position in a somewhat tainted category. After all, Iris, while concerned with Iris Murdoch’s sad decline into Alzheimer’s disease, transcended the genre by virtue of its profoundly realized characterizations. A Beautiful Mind, though a less subtle film which did not completely avoid the maudlin, won Academy Awards and a deserved audience for its well-told story of a schizophrenic.
Door to Door, a TNT original film, works hard to avoid both sentimentality and manipulativeness in telling the true story of Bill Porter (William H. Macy), a man born with cerebral palsy who became a star door-to-door salesman for the Watkins company. Told chronologically, the film begins when Porter was living at home with his mother (Helen Mirren) and looking for a job. Her love, her confidence in him, and her key lessons of "patience and persistence" are shown with droll humor in a feisty performance by Mirren.
Porter lands the job with Watkins and starts his rounds. The customers on his route provide a bit of spice–two neighbors in a long term feud, a gay couple, an attractive, lonely alcoholic woman. It takes some time (patience and persistence), but Porter’s compassionate and nonjudgmental approach to his customers breaks down barriers and he becomes successful.
Meanwhile his mother declines from Alzheimer’s and must be under supervised care in a home. Porter’s main support system needs to be replaced.He hires Shelly Brady (Kyra Sedgwick), a student, to help him to make deliveries and keep house. When she disapproves of the gay couple (she’s a Mormon), Porter gently reminds her: "God made all of us–and He doesn’t make mistakes." From his own disability (and, one suspects, his mother’s teaching), Porter grew into a better, rather than a bitter person.
Door to Door’s thoughtful script was written by Macy along with Steven Schachter, who also directed. While it succeeds in avoiding sentimentality, it is lacking in dramatic momentum and plays out rather flatly. When Mirren is around to energize things the film works better than after the mother becomes ill. The Brady role isn’t well individualized; her lack of personality (no fault of Sedgwick’s) doesn’t give Macy much to play off of. There are suggestions from time to time of a romantic drive in Porter, but he never confronts it and neither does the film.
What glues it all together, though, is Macy, in another accomplished performance in his long series of strong screen portrayals (Focus, State and Main, Magnolia). He deals well with the difficult physical aspects of the role, but, more importantly, he excels at getting inside the character and subtly showing the emotional reactions of Pullman to the changing circumstances and the constant challenges of his life, all the while sustaining a gentle humor and a knowing sense of the absurd.