The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood (PG-13)
It's impossible to view The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood as just a summer film. The novels the film is based upon, Rebecca Wells' Little Altars Everywhere and Divine Secrets, the pre-release hype (read: Oprah!) and the proliferation of Ya-Ya sisterhoods across America have become a phenomenon, unfortunately to the detriment of both the books and the film.
I knew it was coming when I saw the author's new introduction to the mass-market trade paperback edition of Little Altars Everywhere, a fine book originally published by a small independent publisher and winner of the Western States Book Award in the early 1990s. In the intro, author Wells gushes to her readers, addressing them as y'all and dahlin' and blathers on about the privilege of being a part of her readers' lives, etc., etc., etc.
What was once exceptionally good mainstream fiction, rich with character and place, is now self-proclaimed therapy, aimed at massaging the emotional boo-boos of a spoiled generation of women. The phenomenon is ya-ya this and ya-ya that, women swigging gin and tonics and celebrating a sisterhood based on swagger, attitude and shiny convertibles. Wells claims to court "smart men" too, but basically men are out.
That's unfortunate, because both novels, unlike the film, focus a great deal on Shep Walker, an emotionally shut-off cotton farmer, father of Siddalee, the main character, and on Sidda's relationship with her brother Baylor. In the film, Sandra Bullock plays the fragile, needy Siddalee in her usual mopey bulldog way, rolling her eyes and looking like she needs a nap more than an emotional breakthrough. Brother Baylor doesn't exist except in old photographs and vague flashbacks and Shep, played by James Garner, is reduced to a mute eunuch who quietly idolizes his crazy wife, Viviane (Ellen Burstyn).
Here's the plot: Siddalee Walker, a Louisiana girl who carries the burden of a volatile, often abusive childhood into her adult life, has become a successful playwright, due to open her first play on Broadway. In an interview with Time magazine, Sidda mentions that her childhood was rough and her mother, well, unpredictable. When Viviane, back home in Louisiana, reads the interview, she goes ballistic. A furious battle via Federal Express packages ensues and both mother and daughter vow never to speak to the other again.
Enter the Ya-Yas, Vivi's lifelong pals Caro (Maggie Smith), Necie (Shirley Knight) and Teensy (Fionnula Flanagan), sworn to loyalty by a blood oath as girls and joined by a cocktail shaker as adults. The Ya-Yas dope and kidnap Sidda -- an unfortunate plot choice -- and bring her back to Louisiana where they proceed to patch up her relationship with her mama by telling her the secrets of Vivi's past.
Again, the film fails where the books succeed. The single most traumatic episode of Vivi's young adulthood, when her parents have her committed to a mental hospital because she's high spirited, is overlooked in the screenplay. The "big secret," the one kept until near the end of the film, is not a secret at all but one of a series of traumatic events from Sidda's childhood when her mama flipped out.
There's a lot of material to work with here and director Callie Khouri (screenwriter of Thelma and Louise) had to make some strategic choices. The only way to tell the story of Sidda, Vivi and the Ya-Yas is through flashbacks -- a problematic dramatic structure for any film and particularly prickly here. Khouri chooses to open the film with a flashback to the little-girl Ya-Ya's first induction ritual -- a sappy scene that could have been introduced as passing dialogue. The Ya-Yas are far more interesting as aging women, especially as played by this stellar cast. The only flashbacks that work are those where Ashley Judd as the young Viviane demonstrates the character's flash and verve. Judd is very strong in her breakdown scenes, and the four elder Ya-Yas sparkle in every scene. Burstyn's a tearful, boozy old magnolia blossom; Knight's a soft pillow to cry on; Smith's a worn-out old crone sucking on an oxygen mask between hilarious one-liners; and Flanagan's a lioness -- gorgeous and tough with a voice that purrs and growls. Even poor old James Garner with his watered-down character is winning, melting hearts with the mere utterance of his pet name for his unhappy daughter -- "Buttahbean."
But The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood is crippled by its script and polluted by its blatant commercial leanings. The producers opted for a soundtrack by T-Bone Burnett who rocked the popular music world with the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack and has patented a formula for success -- mix a great bunch of vintage tracks with some new stuff, feature it heavily in the film, and expect the CD to break sales records and promote the movie's future success in the video market. Where it worked in the film O Brother, which was something of a musical, it stinks here. We have to suffer through two long scenes where first Bullock gazes out over the water while the new Lauryn Hill song is introduced, then Burstyn wanders through her sad house while the new Linda and Richard Thompson tune is featured. These scenes detract from the film's dramatic pacing and content while bullishly promoting the musical soundtrack and CD sales.
All of it is part of the mushroom cloud effect of the Ya-Ya phenomenon -- slick and commercial but sadly lacking the essence of Wells' books as they were originally conceived. Whatever happened to just plain good storytelling?
-- Kathryn Eastburn