[Screen It]

(2002) (Sandra Bullock, Ellen Burstyn) (PG-13)

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Drama/Comedy: After a woman and her adult daughter have another falling out, the woman's lifelong friends abduct the daughter in an effort to inform her about why her mother is the way she is.
Sidda Lee Walker (SANDRA BULLOCK) is a young New York City playwright who claims that much of her material stems from her troubled relationship with her colorful mother, Vivi (ELLEN BURSTYN), who still lives in Louisiana with her reserved husband of forty some years, Shep (JAMES GARNER).

An article in Time Magazine about Sidda's seemingly negative view of her mother becomes the last straw between the two, prompting them to get into battle of ignoring and slighting the other. Vivi's lifelong friends -- Teensy (FIONNULA FLANAGAN), Necie (SHIRLEY KNIGHT) and Caro (MAGGIE SMITH) who collectively make up the Ya-Ya sisterhood that they formed as kids backing the 1930s - finally have enough and kidnap Sidda and take her to a remote lakefront cabin.

There, they intend to show her why Vivi acts the way she does, and that begins with their homemade scrapbook, "The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood." From the various photos and letters in it, Sidda begins to learn about the four women's decades of friendship, including when her then young mother (ASHLEY JUDD) turned from a vivacious and outgoing woman - despite growing up in her own troubled family - into a neurotic and then psychotic mother.

As the woman continue in their quest to educate Sidda and eventually reunite her with her despondent mother, they also hope they can break the apparent family curse that's prevented Sidda from marrying her boyfriend, Connor McGill (ANGUS MacFADYEN), who joins Shep in watching from the sidelines as the ladies try to make things right.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
As long as there are parents and children, there will always be conflict at one time or another between the generations. While they occasionally occur across the sexes, they're usually of the father-son and mother-daughter varieties. Both have their individual reasons and characteristics, but the latter ones are often more heated and emotional and, if properly stirred up, can last a lifetime.

That's certainly the case with Sidda Lee Walker and her overly dramatic mother, Vivi, who suffer from and are afflicted by a passed down familial curse of sorts that fuels the plot of "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood." Based on the best-selling 1996 novel of the same name (as well as parts of "Little Altars Everywhere") by author Rebecca Wells, the film tells the tale of a close-knit group of lifelong friends of the mother's who intervene and try to put an end to the vicious mother-daughter cycle.

Through a series of flashbacks spanning some sixty years (we see them in the '30s, '40s, '60s and sometime recently), the adult daughter - and thus the viewer - learns what caused the mother to be the way she is. That not only gives her new perspective on the woman, but also eventually leads to a tearful and emotional, but completely unbelievable and forced reconciliation between the two (as if there were any doubt in any viewer's mind about that).

Until then, and particularly in regards to the contemporary scenes, that also means that a great deal of exaggerated overacting is in store. While such real life familial issues often lead to high-strung and widely flung emotions, it's a bit over the top here in terms of both comedy and drama. Of course, some viewers and critics will eat that up or at least enjoy the obvious histrionics, and the film does have an innate sense of charm and Southern humor working in its favor (even if both are prone to leave something of an aftertaste of artificiality).

As written and directed by Callie Khouri (making her directing debuting after penning "Thelma and Louise" and "Something To Talk About") who works from an adaptation by Mark Andrus ("Life as a House," "As Good As It Gets") of Wells' two novels, the film is moderately entertaining to behold as it spends its time alternating between the present day and various views of the past.

Not being intimately familiar with the original literary work, I can't attest about how faithful the film is to it. Viewers in the same boat, though, should have no problem following the basics of what transpires, although at times one has to fill in some blanks along the way.

Fans of the literary work, however, may have problems with parts or all of the film as some elements have apparently been changed and/or jettisoned, and not all of the lead actresses make one automatically or even generally think of Louisiana where the film is set. In addition, I should point out for those who haven't already discerned so, that this is definitely a "chick flick," with only two supporting male roles present to cut through or at least temper some of the free-flowing estrogen.

That aside, and as is the case with many such time-jumping plots, the stories that occur in the past here are far more interesting and engaging than the contemporary one, even if most of them feel episodic and pretty much have to stand on their own anyways due to a lack of properly connecting narrative threads or directorial effort.

Our interest is obviously directed toward seeing what shaped Vivi into the woman she is today as well as the one in Sidda's mixed and conflicted memories of her childhood growing up with and under her. Whether it's Caitlin Wachs ("Thirteen Days," "My Dog Skip") as the very young Vivi or Ashley Judd ("High Crimes," "Double Jeopardy") in the teen and twenty-something years -- the flashback bits are compelling and generally well-constructed standalone looks at how psychological child abuse and mental dysfunction are easily passed down and learned from one generation to the next.

The "big secret" about what scarred and turned the character into a manic-depressive isn't really that big or shocking, and thus some of the travelogue through her life - as told to Sidda - ends up being redundant. Even so, both Wachs and especially Judd deliver solid performances and make the character far more interesting than the troubled adult daughter one played by Sandra Bullock ("Murder by Numbers," "Miss Congeniality"). In fact, it's nice to see Judd tackling a more complex and demanding role both physically (playing different ages) and emotionally, but Bullock isn't given much of an opportunity to match her effort.

Although the mother's friends - they of the titular sisterhood - aren't particularly notable or memorable in the various flashbacks - in fact, they're often hard to differentiate or connect to their modern day counterparts - they stand out a bit more in the contemporary scenes.

While Shirley Knight ("The Salton Sea," "As Good As It Gets") is a bit shortchanged in terms of dialogue and discernible characteristics, Maggie Smith ("Gosford Park," "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone") and Fionnula Flanagan ("The Others," "Waking Ned Devine") are fun - and seem to enjoy themselves - in their respective roles.

Some may argue that they're more caricatures than real characters - and there's some validity to such claims - but they have enough enjoyable human qualities to make them entertaining. That's certainly the case with Ellen Burstyn ("Requiem For A Dream," "The Exorcist") as the overly dramatic mother. Like the others, she may go too far with some of the material for some viewers' tastes, but in general, hers is enough of a winning performance to offset such complaints.

Meanwhile, and playing the only two notable male characters, James Garner ("Space Cowboys," "My Fellow Americans") and Angus Macfadyen ("Titus," "Cradle Will Rock") both deliver good performances. Even so, it would have been interesting to see the result of them having meatier roles.

Feeling like something of a combination of elements from "Terms of Endearment" and "Steel Magnolias" but without the tragedy or as much depth, the film might be too superficial to some. It does leave some questions unanswered (such as how and why the women's friendship has endured the passage of time and familial turmoil) and clearly contains character motivations and actions that aren't fleshed out enough to make them credible and/or elicit empathy from the viewer (including Vivi's transformation from vivacious youth to manic-depressive mother).

It's not enough to derail the production completely, but at times the film doesn't work as well as one would like, while it also feels like a truncated version of a complete story rather than the whole thing. Obviously designed to entertain the general masses, the film has its winning moments and performances, but unfortunately contains just as many problems. Okay, but nothing great, "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood" rates as a 5 out of 10.

Reviewed May 21, 2002 / Posted June 7, 2002

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