Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood

on June 07, 2002 by Sheri Linden
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   Sweet and gently wise-ass, this talk-driven adaptation of two best-selling novels (Rebecca Wells' "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood" and "Little Altars Everywhere") is a pleasant but less than satisfying big-screen experience. Callie Khouri, the Oscar-winning scripter of "Thelma & Louise," structures her directorial debut with a looseness that gets a bit wearying, and the story's supposed dramatic payoff doesn't pack the intended punch. Still, with its focus on mother-daughter dynamics and lifelong friendships among women, "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood" will have emotional resonance with female audiences, and its name cast will be a draw.

   The story spans 60 years, beginning in 1937 Louisiana, where four young girls stage a whimsical pagan ceremony that unites them as Ya-Ya Sisters. In the present day, Vivi (Ellen Burstyn), the leader of the Ya-Yas and a self-styled drama queen, renounces her successful playwright daughter, Sidda (Sandra Bullock), over a Time magazine interview in which she speaks of a difficult childhood. Into the rift step the other three Ya-Yas (Fionnula Flanagan, Maggie Smith and Shirley Knight), "mama's henchmen," who fly to New York and, armed with a dose of roofies, kidnap Sidda to Louisiana in order to effect a rapprochement between mother and daughter.

   The movie's title comes from the book of photos and memorabilia that the three older women show their "captive," sparking a series of flashbacks about Vivi's life. But the flashbacks feel increasingly arbitrary, and while there are individual sequences that are lovely and memorable, the story has no particular momentum. The ultimate revelation about Vivi--though beautifully acted by Ashley Judd as the spirited, troubled younger woman--is anticlimactic, its power further defused by the predictable reconciliation that quickly follows.

   Burstyn, Flanagan, Smith and Knight are delightful screen presences, but the actresses and their self-consciously spunky characters seem to be constantly pointing out, "aren't we a hoot?", while Bullock is simply too serene as a woman ostensibly on the verge of a nervous breakdown. With its loving attention to its female characters, this is the kind of movie that offers only thankless roles for the few males in the story. As the unbelievably patient and long-suffering husband of Vivi, James Garner manages to convey a certain pathos, but Angus MacFadyen never injects any edge into the nice-supportive-guy role of Sidda's fiancé. (In flashbacks, Cherry Jones and Gina McKee deliver brief but searing portraits of two of the Ya-Yas' mothers.)

   Aided by terrific period design and music, Khouri captures a sense of time and place and, above all, an aching, sentimental nostalgia. But she undermines the narrative with scenes that go nowhere--sometimes literally: In the present day, the four Ya-Ya Sisters get in a car, their destination apparently on the cutting-room floor. A childhood sequence set in Atlanta, with its superficial attempt to address Southern issues of race, adds nothing to the drama. With leaner storytelling and a tighter sense of movement between past and present, the film's observations about friendship, love and family might have been more compelling. Starring Sandra Bullock, Ellen Burstyn, Fionnula Flanagan, James Garner, Cherry Jones, Ashley Judd, Shirley Knight, Angus MacFadyen, Maggie Smith, Gina McKee, Matthew Settle, David Rasche and Allison Bertolino. Directed and written by Callie Khouri. Produced by Bonnie Bruckheimer and Hunt Lowry. A Warner Bros. release. Drama. Rated PG-13 for mature thematic elements, language, and brief sensuality. Running time: 116 min

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