Herald Journal Columns
June 9, 2003 Herald Journal
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The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood


"The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood" came out in theaters last year, and is still on the "New Release" shelves at the video stores.

This is a seriously flawed film (so, why am I bothering to recommend it? Read on!) that got as much attention as it did through the pedigree of its cast and the muscle of its producers.

And a fine cast it is. The four older women ­ the Ya-Ya Sisters ­ and their protégée contain two of the movie industry's most respected names ­ Maggie Smith and Ellen Burstyn ­ and one of the most recognizable ­ Sandra Bullock.

Dame Maggie Smith is an icon in the business, from the time she played opposite Laurence Olivier in the 1965 "Othello," to her comedic genius in "Murder by Death" and "Sister Act," to the heartwarming portrayal of the elder Wendy in "Hook," and finally in all three (yes, there's another one coming) "Harry Potter" movies.

Ellen Burstyn's name on a cast list ("The Exorcist," "Same Time Next Year," "Spitfire Grill") has always lent an air of sophistication.

And, everyone who has walked into a movie theater in the past 10 years recognizes the very watchable Sandra Bullock ("Speed," "Miss Congeniality," "Hope Floats").

But there's even the Irish actress Fionnula Flanagan ("Tears of the Sun," "The Others," "Waking Ned Divine"), who's highly respected, if not as well known.

And yet this is a flawed film. So, I ask myself, "why did it get as far as it did?"

It's not on the reputation of first time director Callie Khouri, who is best known as the screenplay writer for Ridley Scott's "Thelma and Louise."

She also wrote Lasse Halstrom's "Something to Talk About," and, in "Ya-Ya Sisterhood," borrows most freely from Halstrom's style in such films as "The Shipping News" and "The Ciderhouse Rules." But she lacks his vision to tie a complex story together in a way that is believable.

So, my theory is that the big push, the one that got it as far as it did, came from the producers of this film.

Producers are the ones who put up the money and often control the actual content, especially when the director isn't a heavyweight like Spielberg or Scott. The viewing public rarely remembers their names, but they are the ones who walk to the stage to accept the Oscar for best picture.

For "Ya-Ya Sisterhood," the man behind the curtain that no one recognizes is Hunt Lowery, who has produced no less than 20 blockbuster hits from "Airplane" to "A Walk to Remember."

But there's also The Divine Miss M, Bette Midler. Between the two of them, they were able to line up this great cast, mount a formidable promotional campaign, and bring in some great musicians to work on the sound track.

Which brings up my first reason you should see this movie: the soundtrack. With T-Bone Burnett at the helm, who scored such a musical success with "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou," we are treated to some delightful Cajun music and New Orleans Jazz, Tommy Dorsey and Duke Ellington, Bob Dylan and Alison Kraus, Tony Bennett and Mahalia Jackson.

The only musical klunker is an example of how this movie got away from director Khouri. There's a scene thrown in with a completely unrelated Lauryn Hill song that does nothing to further the story; in fact, it slows the narrative down at a critical moment.

There are several instances like this that challenge the viewer's "willing suspension of disbelief."

Why is that scene in there? What happened to the other siblings that were so important in the beginning of the story? How could Bullock's character, an up and coming Broadway playwright, leave a show in dress rehearsals and never even contact them?

Then there was the issue of believable accents. The film is set in Louisiana. I lived there a couple of years, and no one talked like that, or, not to that extreme.

I guess it's hard to resist exaggerating a regional dialect for effect ­ think of "Fargo." But Khouri, who also wrote the screenplay, established early on that all of the female lead characters were natives of the Creole state.

Then she cast a Brit (Maggie Smith) and a woman who's as Irish as a Guinness Stout (Fionnula Flanagan) as the adults. Smith makes a valiant attempt to sound authentic, but Flanagan fails miserably.

The other reason I can conditionally recommend this movie is that there are some compelling moments ­ most of which involve Ashley Judd, who portrays the mother in flashback scenes. She's the most believable character, and Miss Judd should be very proud of her work.

There's a good story of reconciliation between a mother and daughter buried under Khouri's inept telling of it.

If you liked "How to Make an American Quilt" (a very good film) and "Joy Luck Club" (a great film), you might give "The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood" a try. Otherwise, just pick up the CD of the soundtrack.

Rated PG-13 for mature thematic elements, language, and brief sensuality.

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