They said M*A*S*H wouldn't work on TV--that you couldn't mix comedy with people dying. Eleven seasons and countless Emmys later, who had the last laugh?

I watched a DVD screener of this indie first feature as soon as I could get one, which was some days after it had debuted Dec. 1 at one theatre in Los Angeles. After taking time to gather my thoughts and ideas, I went to look up some production background and in doing so wandered into a handful of reviews--all of them, remarkably, mostly negative. But Two Weeks works. And you don't even need a dying mother to appreciate it.

This semiautobiographical comedy-drama from TV-commercials director Steve Stockman--whose own mother had died of cancer seven years earlier--finds adult siblings who've gathered at their North Carolina childhood home, where mom Anita Bergman (Sally Field)--a non-religious Jew in a nicely un-clichéd modern South--is terminal. Neither superhumanly stoic nor bathed in bathos, she's trying to face her imminent death as practically as possible. This means, among other things, sitting still for her eldest son, Keith (Ben Chaplin), a filmmaker, as he Q&As her about family history for video and posterity.

By either coincidence or design, these naturally TV-dimension segments are black-bordered within the widescreen movie, like a memorial foreshadowed. Field, in these videos-within-the-movie, is not a revelation, in the sense that anyone who's seen her from Norma Rae to Not Without My Daughter, or even from the dead-on questing youthfulness of TV's "The Flying Nun" to her frighteningly in-and-out lucidity as a mentally ill mother on "ER," knows what a prodigious if underappreciated and underutilized talent she is. Staged before the cancer begins its worst, most wracking toll--smartly providing us buoyant respites from an otherwise grinding downward march to death--these segments in their simplicity give you renewed respect for her unmannered artfulness.

Dutiful daughter Emily (Julianne Nicholson) has been shouldering most of the burden until her siblings arrive. Self-consciously mature, she projects the minor arrogance that a sole sister with three brothers has had to develop in order to not to be smothered and to be heard, and writer-director Stockman wisely lets her performance and not the script spell that out. Besides Keith, she's joined by San Francisco suit-of-some-sort Barry (Tom Cavanagh, showing an impressive range beyond his variously cuddly TV types and without becoming a yuppie cliché) and 27-year-old youngest brother Matthew (Glenn Howerton), whose horrible, self-centered wife (the usually better Clea DuVall) has no depth as scripted or acted.

That and a comically oblivious assistant rabbi/former Navy chaplain are the only real misfires in a smoothly directed story that shows without sentiment how life, for better or worse, goes on. Officious clerks, authority-abusing airline employees and Barry's bosses at work don't necessarily care that your mother is dying and that you're trying to do the right thing. And jokes do get told and meals still get eaten and even the walking dead can laugh as well as cry in pain. It's not an easy balance, either in life or on screen. And yes, granted, seeing it in 32 inches diagonal isn't the same as seeing it in a theatre, but camera angles and cuts are the same no matter what, and emotions this big don't shrink. Two Weeks deserves a long life.