Film Reviews: Wednesday, June 06, 2002
Soap Oprah

This film of Rebecca Wells novels could use some more ya-yas.

By Kristian Lin

Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood is based on two books by Rebecca Wells, Little Altars Everywhere and the one that shares its title with the film. The latter novel, with its collection of clichés of female empowerment and homespun Southern eccentricity, owed much of its success to the blessing of Oprah Winfrey’s book club. Thus, the film version presents a rather fearsome prospect for guys who find themselves dragged to this movie by their dates. Those guys will be glad to know that it’s not nearly as bad as it could have been.

The story begins with successful Broadway playwright Sidda Lee Walker (Sandra Bullock) giving an interview to Time magazine that dredges up not-so-fond memories of her childhood in Louisiana and how her mother Vivi (Ellen Burstyn) raised her. It’s up to Vivi’s closest friends, who cemented their friendship as little girls by creating a club for themselves called the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, to make peace between mother and daughter by telling Sidda Lee about Vivi’s own harsh experiences growing up. Their recollections are told in flashback, with Ashley Judd playing young Vivi.

Wells’ books were adapted by Callie Khouri, a first-time director who’s better known as the screenwriter of Thelma and Louise and Something to Talk About. Khouri’s a harder-headed writer than Wells; she has a sense of humor (which Wells definitely doesn’t) and knows when to deflate an emotional moment with a joke. Her scenes don’t go on too long or get too caught up in speechifying (common mistakes by writers-turned-directors), and she handles the transitions between the two storylines smoothly. Her resolutely modern sensibility keeps the movie from drowning in nostalgic longing for a mythic past.

The actors in the present-day scenes take their cues from her. Bullock’s wit can cut through most forms of sentimentality, and it proves to be a valuable asset here. As the men who stoically endure Vivi and Sidda Lee’s emotional swings, James Garner and Angus MacFadyen bravely soldier through. Fionnula Flanagan, unrecognizable from the creepy Irish housekeeper she played in The Others, does cagey supporting work as one of the Ya-Ya sisters. Burstyn’s predictably over-the-top performance is a disappointment, and she gets upstaged by Maggie Smith, whooping it up as a flamboyant grande dame who refuses to let her age get in the way of her lifestyle. She turns the act of putting on an oxygen mask into a priceless funny bit.

Too bad the movie’s weighed down by the sequences set in the past. Khouri resists the temptation to overinflate the angst in these more serious scenes and directs them with an admirable restraint. Still, she can’t disguise the fact that the story treads over well-worn ground. Judd tries hard, but she’s too tightly controlled an actress to portray a woman who’s losing control. She wasn’t always that way; she did an excellent job of playing just such a character in a 1996 thriller called Normal Life. Not now, though. She’s like that pretty country singer who went to Nashville and sold millions of records while all the interesting edges got rubbed off her. Like the rest of the movie, she could have used a bit less Southern decorum.

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