Review: 'Ya-Ya' a pandering cliche
Overacted, overripe version of bestseller
(CNN) -- Callie Khouri's "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood" is a certifiable "chick flick," pre-chewed and delivered in a burped Tupperware container. This is not a good thing.
Note that "chick flick" -- a singsong phrase that efficiently denigrates both women and cinema -- doesn't mean "good-quality movie." All it means is that the mother-daughter story, the characters' overripe names, the boozy Southern setting, and the virtually non-stop arguments are mirror images of 15 other chick flicks. That in itself is supposed to make it captivating entertainment.
If only. Khouri won an Oscar for her first screenplay, "Thelma and Louise," a supposed feminist tract that has as much to do with "Smokey and the Bandit" as it does Gloria Steinem. "Ya-Ya Sisterhood" is her directorial debut, and it practically lies down and wallows in its mega-hammy "I Am Woman" tone.
The performances, with a couple of exceptions, are so over-the-top they wouldn't look out of place on theater night at the nuthouse. And the story's central thesis -- namely that mean, unloving, self-centered people often have every reason to be that way -- is pretty questionable.
Outside of some touching scenes in the late going, this is a great big screeching pander to a pre-established audience, and everybody else should just get out of the way.
Drinking and yelling
Sandra Bullock plays Sidda Lee Walker, a successful New York playwright who gives a fateful interview to a Time magazine reporter just weeks before a big Broadway premiere. The resulting article quotes Sidda as saying that her hoity-toity mother, Vivi (Ellen Burstyn), was lacking as a parent, and this sets Vivi off like a perpetually re-fueling firecracker.
Down home in the Deep South -- where everyone talks at a snail's crawl until they inevitably start screaming at each other -- Vivi disowns Sidda. Vivi, you see, is high strung ... although most viewers will think, even after two hours of characters stating otherwise, that's she's just a selfish jerk.
Her lifelong friends, Teensy (Fionnula Flanagan), Necie (Shirley Knight), and Caro (Maggie Smith) -- the self-anointed Ya-Ya Sisterhood -- take a secret trip to New York, where they quite believably drug Sidda and whisk her back home for a systematic reconciliation. Smith gets off a couple of chuckle-worthy reaction shots in the process, but that's about it.
Apparently, Sidda, who may or may not be on the verge of marrying her boyfriend (Angus MacFayden), has never had a complex conversation with either her mother or her father (James Garner, so fully emasculated it gets depressing). So the Ya-Yas, who "entertainingly" drink and gripe at each other nonstop, sit her down with a scrapbook and tell her everything she don't know about her crazy ol' mama.
This triggers a string of episodic flashbacks, and the picture gains a bit of humanity. But not enough to make up for the recurring hysteria.
Judd lets another get away
Ashley Judd, an Oscar-caliber actress who consistently roots out inferior screenplays like a sexy truffle pig, plays young Vivi, the Unstoppable Lifeforce. Vivi was always the ringleader of the Ya-Yas, and we get to see her leading them into a variety of Unstoppable Lifeforce mischief.
But everything turns sour when her true love dies during World War II. That's when she wigs out, and spends the better part of her adult life emotionally torturing her second-string husband and family.
Then, completely out of nowhere, there's a moving sequence in which Judd flees her home life and holes up for a few days in a secluded hotel. For just a couple of minutes, the screeching stops, T-Bone Burnett's (enjoyable) collection of eclectic pop tunes ceases its bombardment, and Vivi is able to silently gaze in a mirror and wonder what's gone wrong.
Don't get too comfortable, though. Minutes later everyone's back to whooping and hollering, in between delivering goopy homilies about not getting enough love. By the time it's over, you feel like you've watched a feature-length episode of "Family Feud," except that no one ever shouts "good answer."
At the risk of badgering, because I say it virtually every time she comes out with a new movie, Judd is letting her considerable talent whither on the vine. Think about the comparably gifted Julianne Moore, who can appear in silly genre stuff, but still digs up -- and stunningly pulls off -- major challenges, like Todd Haynes' harrowing "Safe" or Paul Thomas Anderson's darkly comic "Boogie Nights." Judd, on the other hand, is either outrunning serial killers, running after serial killers, or serving up pat life lessons every time you see her. It would be terrible if, like Vivi, she let her best years get away from her.
"Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood" contains drinking, drugging, a moment of ugly racism, and some children being beaten with a belt. But everyone shouts and giggles otherwise. (Would it kill producers to cast actual Southerners as Southerners? I grew up in rural Alabama, and, outside of the stray Foghorn Leghorn cartoon, I never heard anyone talking like most of this crew does.)
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