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ON THE TUBE

I love Lucy. Or at least the teenage actress, Jena Malone, who plays her in CBS' movie, "The Ballad of Lucy Whipple" (9 p.m. Sunday, Channel 4).

Despite Malone's considerable charms and talents, this production falls flat. Set during the California Gold Rush, "The Ballad of Lucy Whipple" mines familiar territory and is often too precious for its own good.

Glenn Close gets top billing, playing Lucy's mother, Arvella Whipple, who decides to head west after the unfortunate death of her husband in Massachusetts. Close, who was in a series of "Sarah, Plain and Tall" movies for CBS, could do roles like this in her sleep.

This time, unfortunately, she puts us to sleep, especially when she's looking concerned and determined.

Lucy clearly is the least happy of the three Whipple kids over her mother's decision to move to California to run a makeshift boarding house at the back of a saloon. She also isn't happy about her name. Originally named California because of her mother's longing for the West, she changes her name to Lucy.

When she isn't writing letters to her grandparents, Lucy is trying to find time to read a good book. She makes friends with a couple of outcasts - a girl her own age living in the frontier to avoid her abusive father and a strong, kind-hearted black man who constantly has to deal with prejudice.

Meanwhile, Lucy's younger brother, Butte (named after the Montana city) is trying to find 50 different words that one could substitute for alcohol.

Robert Pastorelli ("Murphy Brown") is thrown into the mix as a preacher who tries to open Mama Whipple's heart and make her rethink her loathing of the men of the cloth. Wilford Brimley also pops up late in the story as a sheriff and judge. And singer Meat Loaf plays a storyteller and blacksmith named Amos.

You can practically see where the story is headed and just wish it would take less time to get there. Only Malone's luminous work makes any of this Gold Rush story sparkle.

The dialogue? Well, let me just say that it proves there are more than 50 ways to be sappy. If I were the audience I'd take Lucy's advice, forget about this tedious movie and read a good book on Sunday night.

Rating: 1 star out of 4

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