starring Sandra Bullock, Ellen Burstyn, Fionnula Flanagan, James Garner
screenplay by Callie Khouri (with Mark Andrus), based on the novel by Rebecca Wells
directed by Callie Khouri
by Walter Chaw Tennessee Williams by way of Oprah's Book Club, the only thing more intolerable than reading the hideously popular Rebecca Wells novel Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood is watching Callie Khouri's equally shrill and unpleasant film of it. Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood makes assumptions about the stupidity (and cupidity) of women that are unjust and hateful while painting men as paternalistically indulgent, a roll of the eyes and a pat on the hand apparently the best and only way to deal with women when they're being insane and abusive. It doesn't even need to be said that in films of this type women are always being insane and abusive--that is when they aren't being insipid and cutesy. It's bad in the book; after the shorthand and the compressions, it's infinitely worse in the film. It is, after all, now pure and unfiltered.
Opening similarly to Britney Spears's Crossroads, with a flashback to an arcane children's ritual half The Witches of Eastwick and half simple cornpone, Divine Secrets introduces a quartet of young ladies played in their senior years by the unlikely chamber orchestra of Maggie Smith, Fionnula Flannagan, Ellen Burstyn, and Shirley Knight. The film will return to the child versions of the "Ya-Ya's" (as they prefer to be known collectively) for a brief and meaningless sortie into race relations in the South before flashing forward into the present and then back again into the childhood of Sandra Bullock's Siddalee Walker. Siddalee is a New York playwright who's just given a snarky interview to TIME MAGAZINE and has the misfortune to be the daughter of the Burstyn Ya-Ya, Vivi. A twenty-something (into thirty-something) Vivi is played by Ashley Judd, who, having already played an idealized mom in golden flashback in Simon Birch, now plays a demonized mom in golden flashback.
Vivi, it seems, is insane and abusive and as a consequence Siddalee has turned out the same. After the "Time" article runs, Vivi goes (further) off the deep end, inspiring the remaining trio of Ya-Ya's to drug Siddalee and drag her back to the Louisiana bayou so that she might disconsolately flip through the Ya-Ya's scrapbook and, in so doing, understand the source of her insanity and violence to better reconcile with Vivi. The kind of mint julep opera that introduces its glut of flashbacks with musical flourishes and ends them with crusty old women bustling through doorways, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood is uncertain of its symbolism and uncertain of its emphasis. No fewer than three reconciliations are attempted, and the picture features bizarre, extraneous skylarks into the unsteady land of The Shipping News' drowning images and Catholic-bashing before dimly suggesting incest Prince of Tides-like and honouring that connection with a good ol' fashioned, unmotivated strap-whipping. Brothers and sisters are introduced and dropped with nary a "so long, y'all" while what's of primary importance--the emotional connection between the Ya-Yas--is left vague.
Why do these women even associate with each other? They're so indistinguishable in flashback that I was never able to connect up any of the Sisterhood's three incarnations, save the unavoidable Judd/Burstyn dyad. A good deal of the mawkishness and strained sentimentality of the picture would have been ameliorated to some extent, I imagine, had Khouri's screenplay (somehow worse than her own work on the awful Something to Talk About) taken a minute to clarify why these steel magnolias grew close in the same strident window box. Without even the most basic connection to these insane and abusive sugar bakers, one is left with the sad recognition that the only people in the film to strike a human chord are Vivi's husband (played by the always collected James Garner) and Siddalee's Scottish fiancé Connor (Angus MacFadyen). We identify with these unfortunate souls. Like them, we are tormented by the obnoxious caricatures working out their impossible pathologies around them, and like them we deserve to be involved with a better film. Originally published: June 7, 2002.