By Terry Kelleher
May 06, 2002 12:00 PM

CBS (Sun., May 5, 9 p.m. ET)

Three years ago Gloria Reuben (ER, The Agency) starred in the CBS movie Deep in My Heart as a young woman trying to connect with the biological mother she never knew. It could have been soapy but proved exceptional. In this Hallmark Hall of Fame production, Reuben plays a character who has a difficult reunion with the child she bore and gave up 12 years ago. Unfortunately the script fails to rise above the suds.

Little John would be more moving if it were less contrived. After giving birth, the unwed Natalie (Reuben) left Texas and went on to a legal career in Los Angeles. Unbeknownst to Natalie, her father, John (Ving Rhames), adopted and raised her son L.J. (Robert Bailey Jr.). Natalie missed this bit of news because she and John have been bitterly estranged all these years. But now John’s heart seems to be giving out and his daughter has become—oh, the irony—a family-court judge. Clearly it’s time for Natalie and L.J. to form a relationship.

As John goes in and out of the hospital and L.J. haunts his mother’s courtroom looking emotionally needy, you get the feeling the drama is simply seeking ways to postpone explaining what Natalie has against her father and why she persists in rejecting the romantic overtures of a fellow judge (Ruben Santiago-Hudson) whom her assistant (Patty Duke) describes as “perfect.” Rhames is a first-rate actor, but at 42 he’s only five years Reuben’s senior. A stiff gait, a bald pate and a hacking cough aren’t enough to give his performance the needed credibility.

Bottom Line: Comes up short