Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood
Based on the bestselling novel of the same name, this cliché-ridden and girl-heavy production is bearable if not memorable. While it's oddly refreshing to see a "chick flick" unblemished by the plot strain of rape and/or single motherhood, Divine Secrets is little more than a string of middling mother jokes and hokey Hallmark-greeting-card truisms about the difficulties of maternal relationships.
Directed by Callie Khourie, whose résumé heretofore has only included screenwriting (she penned the brilliant script for Thelma & Louise and then wrote a terrible failure in Something to Talk About), Divine Secrets feels like a familiar Hollywood woman-fest with its mostly surface depictions of women through the years. Here, the titular "sisterhood," a powerful ring of friendship forged among four Southern girls at a young age, works to reunite its fearless leader with her estranged daughter. When New York City-based playwright Siddalee (Sandra Bullock) gives an interview to Time Magazine depicting her mother in a harsh light, the elder matriarch, Vivi (Ellen Burstyn) swears off her younger kin. In an attempt to reunite mom and child, the Ya-Yas (Burstyn's trio of elderly buddies is played by Maggie Smith, Fionnula Flanagan, and Shirley Knight) swoop in to smooth things over. The result is a forced walk down memory lane for Bullock as she's told secrets of the past and reflects back on the highs and lows of her own childhood with her fun-loving, hard-drinking, mood-swinging mom (played in her early years by Ashley Judd).
With the requisite flashback structure and the intermingling of cookie-cutter good memories with bad, Divine Secrets feels a lot like the onslaught of "chick flicks" that have preceded it. Visions of films like How to Make an American Quilt, Boys on the Side, and Fried Green Tomatoes will swoop into your head throughout. While Divine Secrets is blessed with a finer cast than many of the aforementioned movies, it is still somewhat spoiled by its rote unearthing of tragedy and triumph amid spots of all-girl debauchery. The elderly women provide most of the yuks in the present (Maggie Smith's character carts around an oxygen tank which is played for, and wins, the most laughs), while Ashley Judd dominates the scenes from the past. And, unquestionably, the standout element in Divine Secrets is Judd herself.
Bringing to life the most complex and fully developed character in the film, Judd plays Vivi's extreme highs and lows with such raw emotion and compassion, it's hard not to be entranced when she's onscreen. Judd, who is a phenomenal actress, is picture-perfect here as she traverses madness and sanity with ease, displaying emotions of intense cruelty followed by extreme tenderness. Thanks in large part to Judd's performance, Divine Secrets inadvertently leaves behind an uncharacteristically dark image of insanity and the passage of time. When Judd, with her charismatic and volatile presence, is contrasted with Burstyn's stodgy but tamer elder persona, the notion that time both calms and kills is driven home. There's something bittersweet about Vivi's aging, as the film implies that with the supposed exorcism of insanity comes the death of her vibrant life source; what makes Vivi dynamic is also what makes her crazy.
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