Combustible Celluloid
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With: Ellen Burstyn, Sandra Bullock, Ashley Judd, Maggie Smith, Fionnula Flanagan, Shirley Knight, Angus MacFadyen, James Garner
Written by: Mark Andrus, Callie Khouri, based on novels by Rebecca Wells
Directed by: Callie Khouri
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for mature thematic elements, language, and brief sensuality
Running Time: 110
Date: 06/03/2002

Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood (2002)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Get Yer Ya-Yas Out

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I haven't read the bestselling novels by Rebecca Wells, but from itstrailer, I expected Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood to be anunbearable squeal-fest with a bunch of women hopped up on estrogen,screeching "ya ya!" every two seconds, then one of them coming down withcancer and dying in a scene filled with overbearing music and tears,followed by another suddenly giving birth, symbolizing the ever-moving,ever-changing "circle of life."

Thankfully, the real movie, which opens today in Bay Area theaters, is not that bad. The story is really nothing more simple and soulful than a mother and a daughter getting to know one another late in life. It plays more like a vintage automobile that runs smoothly sometimes and lurches and sputters at other times. But it never quite stalls.

Ellen Burstyn stars as Vivi, the mother in question. Her latest battle with her headstrong, New York theater director daughter Sidda (Sandra Bullock) begins when Sidda does an interview with Time Magazine and reveals the horrible things her mother did to her as a child.

The two women begin rampaging back and forth -- sending sinister FedEx packages to each other -- until finally Sidda's fiancée (Angus MacFadyen) and Vivi's three friends, the sisterhood: Fionnula Flanagan, Shirley Knight and Maggie Smith, intervene.

The women drug Sidda and kidnap her, taking her back to her Louisiana hometown with the intention of filling her in on the secrets of her mother's life. Hence, the flashbacks begin with Ashley Judd playing the young Vivi, and various other actresses playing the other women.

The story begins in 1937, with the young Vivi and her friends holding the first "Ya-Ya" ceremony, and ends in the present day. To achieve this span of time, director Callie Khouri ages her characters about ten years in the space of five years, then keeps them about the same age for two decades, and winds up with Sidda about 20 years younger than she probably ought to be.

In addition, I had endless amounts of trouble trying to figure out which actresses corresponded with which characters during their different ages, except Vivi, who is the focus of most of the attention. But even then, Judd and Burstyn playing the same character seem never to have met in real life, much less exhibiting any of the same traits.

Still, I found myself getting occasionally wrapped up in the story, thanks mostly to Sandra Bullock's lovely, subtle performance. She's a brilliantly instinctive actress who never goes overboard and pulls from an endless artillery of sighs, hair-swipes, and closed eyelids to enhance even the most overwritten and mundane dialogue, making it seem constantly fresh.

Bullock would have earned an Oscar by now had she stooped to playing someone with a fatal disease rather than one of her collection of charming girl-next-door characters. Next to Bullock, even veterans like James Garner, who plays Vivi's long-suffering husband, seem overtrained. Thankfully, Burstyn manages to match her -- if not necessarily on an even playing field, then at least with the handicap of experience.

Divine Secrets marks the directorial debut of Callie Khouri, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Thelma and Louise as well as the forgettable Julia Roberts weepie Something to Talk About. It's not much of a debut -- she doesn't manage anything inspired or impressive. The best she can manage is to simply hold the movie together, which she does. It's a mass of duct tape and superglue rather than anything poetic, but it holds.

As for the awful trailer that sent me into the theater with such a bad taste in my mouth, I have a solution. Studios should begin hiring film students from the nation's top film schools to put trailers together. It would help open the door for them and their youth and energy would not allow them to follow the standard, insulting trailer formula and would result in a far more satisfying movie experience.

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