Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood

2002, PG-13, 100 min. Directed by Callie Khouri. Starring Sandra Bullock, Ellen Burstyn, Ashley Judd, Maggie Smith, Fionnula Flanagan, Shirley Knight, Angus MacFadyen, James Garner.

REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., June 7, 2002

When Joan Crawford finally slapped that bratty Ann Blyth on the staircase in Mildred Pierce, the relationship between mothers and daughters onscreen took a prickly turn. The masochistic suffering that made Barbara Stanwyck such a good mother in Stella Dallas is a little creepy today; contemporary moms, like Aurora Greenway in Terms of Endearment, now engage in a kind of emotional sadism in dealing with their daughters, and we accept that it's all in the name of love. (Others go as far as to swat them with wire hangers … but that's another story.) Based on two bestselling novels that have captured the imagination of white, middle-class women all over the South, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood is another chapter in the conflict between mother and daughter that seemingly began with Clytemnestra and Elektra. The film begins funnily enough: All hell breaks loose when the temperamental Vivi reads a magazine interview in which her playwright offspring, Siddalee, attributes maternal influences as the inspiration for the dark side of her dramatic work. Photographs with faces cut out of them and shredded theatre tickets to opening-night performances are subsequently exchanged through the mail as the rift between the two escalates to a showdown of female wills. Enter the Ya-Yas, Vivi's loyal childhood friends, who intervene to mediate the crisis by revealing their secret sorority to Siddalee and giving her a family history lesson so that she might understand what makes her crazy mama tick. But the chick-flick quotient rises with each soft-focus flashback recounting Vivi's slow descent into a desperate madness, until the point that the film hits a saturation mark and all of the female bonding becomes cloyingly trite. Even the big "secret" that the Ya-Yas finally divulge to explain Vivi's wounded psyche is anticlimactic, hardly meriting the buildup that precedes it. Still, there are some harrowing scenes of domestic darkness that give the film some much-needed gravity, many of which bring to mind Mary Karr's similarly themed memoir Liar's Club. Bullock's usual self-deprecating charm is ideally suited for the role of Siddalee, although the performance is no stretch for the actress. (Is it possible that Bullock has an Erin Brockovich in her somewhere?) Likewise, the remaining cast members play their parts capably but without taking any risks, although veteran scene-stealer Smith is a reliable hoot as the Ya-Ya who is never without a cocktail or her oxygen tank close at hand. Director Khouri (who scripted Thelma & Louise) unfortunately doesn't do double-duty as the film's screenwriter here; if she had, surely she would have eschewed girl talk such as, "I've been hitting the snooze button on my biological clock for a long time." (One suspects that Rebecca Wells' novel is the source of these banalities.) For those enamored with Wells' books, however, this film version will likely meet their expectations, and it undoubtedly will spawn more Ya-Ya chapters throughout the country. For the others who are mystified by all the fuss, they should consider the possibility that Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood is a movie that only a mother -- and perhaps her daughter -- could really love.

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Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, Callie Khouri, Sandra Bullock, Ellen Burstyn, Ashley Judd, Maggie Smith, Fionnula Flanagan, Shirley Knight, Angus MacFadyen, James Garner

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