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Reviewer doesn't fall for 'The Other Sister'

Web posted on: Tuesday, March 09, 1999 10:32:04 AM EST

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- It just keeps getting prettier and prettier. From the mind-set that brought us everyone's favorite slap-happy physician, "Patch Adams," we now get Garry Marshall's ooey-gooey ode to the developmentally disabled, "The Other Sister." "The Other Sister"'s commitment to boiling down the problems of a couple of impaired young adults into a generously applied balm for the soul is part and parcel of the "Patch Adams" philosophy -- life, no matter how trying or unfair it can often be, is also really cute and really nice. Try as I might to accept the movie on its own blinder-wearing terms, I just about vomited.

Theatrical preview for "The Other Sister"
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The two central characters, who meet and fall in love while taking their first baby steps into the adult world, are played by Juliette Lewis and Giovanni Ribisi. Ribisi's a gifted actor, and he tries hard, but anybody who's ever seen Lewis perform will recognize that she doesn't have to stretch very far to meet the wavering-focus demands of this type of character. She's always come off as a bit less than stable, no matter what role she's given. Her persona in general suggests someone fighting off an oncoming seizure, with dialogue that bubbles up out of a thick stew of whines and nervous tics, and eyes that only fleetingly lock onto anything human.

Though they do what they can with what little they're given, there's no way Lewis and Ribisi could've won this particular battle. Marshall (who also co-scripted) writes in rootin'-tootin' bold-strokes that seldom leave his actors room for something as anachronistic as subtlety. Everybody in the movie possesses exactly one overriding characteristic, and they're repeatedly forced to wield that characteristic as little more than a scene-provoking prod. The actors seldom interact with any nuance; they just jab each other into either (a.) long hugs or (b.) huge arguments. This is first-class hack filmmaking.

"The Other Sister" is the kind of uber-safe studio picture that's begging for one review and one review only -- "the feel-good movie of the year." There's not a stylistic gesture in Marshall's repertoire -- nothing -- that springs from anything but the last preciously ill-informed bucket of treacle that made a killing at the box office.

I tell you what, if I see one more movie where two people suddenly bond while dancing together, or someone "grows up" before your eyes while cutting a rug, I'm gonna strangle myself. Then there's Marshall's penchant for piecing together luke-warm montages to popular songs, rather than writing inter-connected, shaded scenes. It's a tendency that he shares with about half the people making movies today. You'd think by now directors would be embarrassed by aping other guy's tired cliches, but there's no time for embarrassment when you're so busy trying to lift people's wallets ... I mean spirits.

Diane Keaton and Tom Skerritt play Lewis' mom and dad, a filthy-rich couple who differ on just how much they should loosen the protective grip on their daughter's leash. Dad's the understanding one and Mom's the nervous-Nellie type. That way, they get to argue a lot, then make up while the piano tinkles and the violins swell. Skerritt always manages to maintain his dignity, even when he's in bad movies, but in recent years Keaton's been spinning her wheels in flustered Mom roles that are beneath her. She's a first-rate comic actress who's being forced to do little more than fret in well-appointed living rooms in movie after movie. She should still be getting the kinds of roles that Goldie Hawn gets, but the genial warmth that she generated in Woody Allen's best movies is little more than a dim flicker these days. It's tough to watch.

But not as tough as some of the stuff that Lewis and Ribisi have to endure. Foremost among the cutie-poo moments is a scene in which our heroes get dressed up for a Halloween party. Lewis comes traipsing out in a swan get-up (with webbed feet and an orange bill on her cap), while Ribisi shows up looking like a big, cuddly doggie. This is demeaning enough, but then Marshall has him barking and making jokes about being house trained. At times like this, Marshall retreats to his past life as the creator of "Happy Days" and "Laverne and Shirley," handling the characters as if they're heart-tugging variations on Lenny and Squiggy.

Sit on it, Ralph.

There's a smattering of bad language in "The Other Sister," and a lot of ho-ho-ho dialogue as Lewis and Ribisi prepare to de-flower each other by studying "The Joy of Sex." One of Lewis' sisters is a lesbian, but only to prove that it's "nice" to accept "others." The movie is so spoon-fed they should hand out bibs when you enter the theater. Rated PG-13. 130 minutes! Would anybody care to explain that?!

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'The Other Sister'
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