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The Great Train Robbery

(review...)

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Even though I’m a guy, I’m not averse to seeing chick flicks. I can’t stomach male-bashing, but otherwise I’m happy to bring my hanky and let myself get involved.

Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood is a prototypical chick flick. Heavy on the dialogue, the movie is more about how characters feel about things than what they actually do.

Blood Feud

Sandra Bullock demonstrates her phone etiquette to her motherIn Divine Secrets, a feuding mother and daughter (Ellen Burstyn and Sandra Bullock) are driven even further apart when the daughter, an artist, is interviewed in Time magazine. The interview captures Sidda’s words, but misses her tone and meaning entirely. Sidda’s mother Vivi sees the interview and assumes her daughter really does blame her for everything.

Vivi has three friends she’s known since childhood, and together they make up the Sisterhood. Necie, Caro, and Teensy (Shirley Knight, Maggie Smith, and Fionnula Flanagan, respectively) make it their mission to mend the rip between their fourth blood sister and her daughter. They abduct Sidda to their cabin in the woods and reveal her mother’s life story to her. There’s nothing like walking in someone else’s shoes (or at least getting a good look at them) to promote understanding.

Flashing Before the Eyes

Vivi’s story unfolds, Citizen Kane-like, over the course of the film. Each adventure is revealed to Sidda, each episode providing her with some understanding of the roots of her mother’s fears and neuroses.

The ensemble acting is great. It’s easy to believe that these characters, particularly the sisters, have known each other forever. Flanagan, whom I first saw in Waking Ned Devine, is a great character actor. Maggie Smith is so good she hardly has to act; just showing up is enough. Even Sidda and her fiancé (Angus MacFadyen) have a casualness about them that looks like a genuine seven-year relationship.

Callie Khouri, making her directorial debut, proves to be a very good storyteller. Three different actors play Vivi at different stages of life. Within each stage, there are earlier and later episodes, each with different emotional weights. In the wrong hands, Divine Secrets would be a tangled mess in need of simplification. But Khouri, showing the skill of a Martin Scorsese, makes every flashback, every scene, serve the overarching story.

Swept Away

Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood is entertaining and engaging. I got swept up in the drama, and I was ready to recommend it. I’ve since had a few days to think it over, and there are now a few key points that don’t quite work. I still recommend the movie based on my initial reaction, just not as strongly.

For one thing, Vivi and Sidda feel overwritten. Mother and daughter have little tantrums on the phone and send packages to each other dripping with sarcastic, guilt-ridden venom. These instances make for good entertainment, even a few laughs, but they make it hard to take these characters seriously. They walk a fine line between merely exaggerated and cartoonish.

Perhaps it is these exaggerated outbursts that make the emotional rift between mother and daughter seem too wide to be believed. Such a hatred could not be repaired during the course of a single movie. Of course the end actually does bring a smooth resolution, but I’m not completely convinced Sidda and Vivi deserve a lasting peace. Their reconciliation feels too complete and too sudden, as though it were a happy ending in some movie.

Compromising Integrity

Of course, only time will heal the wounds Sidda and Vivi share, but a slow healing process does not make for an interesting film.

In fact, most of my complaints dissolve when weighed against the need for an entertaining movie. The biggest flaws are really compromises. A good storyteller knows which flaws can be forgiven and which ones will lose the audience. Writer/director Khouri is a good storyteller; she makes the right compromises and keeps her story intact.

Maybe she’ll be the next Martin Scorsese.