St. Petersburg Times: Weekend
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It's no 'Fried Green Tomatoes'

[Photo: Warner Bros.]
Two fine books combine for one mediocre movie when Ellen Burstyn, Maggie Smith, Fionnula Flanagan, Sandra Bullock and Shirley Knight star in Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood

By STEVE PERSALL, Times Film Critic

© St. Petersburg Times
published June 6, 2002

Despite its feminine star power, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood disappoints as a mediocre mishmash of schmaltz.

Movies based on popular books typically are disappointing since there's no way to cram every beloved detail into a two-hour running time. Why, then, does writer-director Callie Khouri believe she can combine two Rebecca Wells novels into one movie and do justice to the material?

Wishful thinking, perhaps. Wells' cracked Southern belles -- four wilted magnolias of booze-tarnished steel and one daughter trying to dodge them -- have instant feminine appeal. Khouri, an Oscar winner for her Thelma and Louise screenplay, obviously likes that. But her production of Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood is a victim of Hollywood's law of diminishing returns: The more a filmmaker wants to include, the more that must be left out.

Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood is oddly arbitrary, a movie that (except for the first and final 15 minutes) could have its scenes rearranged in almost any order to achieve the same effect. The polite term of description is "episodic." Viewers sort through two levels of flashbacks, connected with present-day scenes usually ending on a cryptic note that the next flashback clarifies. Such emotional cliffhangers work in book form; in movies they play like easy ways out.

Structurally, the movie is a bore. But it does have personality, thanks to a roster of actors making the most of Hollywood's semi-annual gamble on a mostly female cast. Scripts offering such juicy lines to women, especially as mature as these, are rare. Maybe Khouri tries too hard because she thinks this is a one-shot deal.

The plot revolves around Sidda Walker, played by Sandra Bullock, a Broadway playwright whose latest work is based on her domineering mother, Vivi. A magazine article about Sidda's Southern discomfort reaches her mom, a cocktail-sipping worrywart played in this time frame by Ellen Burstyn. Vivi is humiliated and immediately disowns Sidda, changing her will but not her way. Sidda retaliates with a few choice insults of her own. Khouri's playful manner in these opening scenes raises our hopes before her hopscotch instincts kick in.

Vivi's lifelong friends, dubbed the Ya-Ya Sisterhood since the first flashback to a childhood initiation, decide to bring Sidda and Vivi back together no matter how much guile, vodka and prescription drugs are required. They force Sidda to read Vivi's Ya-Ya diary, look at old photographs and ask questions, inspiring more flashbacks along the way.

Turns out that, in her 1950s heyday, Burstyn used to be Ashley Judd, with a wild streak and emotional baggage Sidda never understood. There is no cumulative effect, however, to the drama or comedy of the circumstances. Good and bad times pass like billboard messages, unconnected except in their desire to sell us something. Khouri is dealing in artificial schmaltz.
Ashley Judd plays the younger, 1950s-era Vivi of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, whose later relationship with her daughter forms the central story line in the film.

Bullock, Burstyn and Judd get the most screen time, but it's the other Ya-Yas who make the best impressions: Fionnula Flanagan (The Others) is a hoot as Teensy, like Betty White with backbone. Maggie Smith follows up her Gosford Park triumph with a wry, wheezing portrayal of Caro, toting an oxygen tank wherever she goes, using the mask to punctuate her wry asides. Shirley Knight has a nicely addled presence as Necie. The male perspective (i.e. what women don't want) is manned by James Garner and Angus MacFadyen.

Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood is a pleasantly mediocre movie with blanks that Wells readers can fill in, but that doesn't help the rest of us. Khouri wants this to be another Fried Green Tomatoes with "Ya-Ya" replacing "Towanda" as a feminist cheer. But that film flowed easier, cascading to a stirring climax. This one is just a gussied-up stick in the mud.

Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood

Grade: C+
Director: Callie Khouri
Cast: Sandra Bullock, Ellen Burstyn, Ashley Judd, James Garner, Fionnula Flanagan, Angus MacFadyen, Maggie Smith, Cherry Jones
Screenplay: Callie Khouri, based on the novels Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and Little Altars Everywhere by Rebecca Wells
Rating: PG-13; mature themes, profanity, brief sensuality
Running time: 118 min.

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