*½/**** Image A- Sound B Extras B-
starring Amber Tamblyn, America Ferrera, Blake Lively, Alexis Bledel
screenplay by Delia Ephron and Elizebth Chandler, based on the novel by Ann Brashares
directed by Ken Kwapis
by Walter Chaw The quartet of best pals portrayed in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants are, we're told, complementary parts of one consciousness, which goes some way towards explaining why it is that individually they seem like machine-tooled fonts of tween didacticism. They're Judy Blume-spawned pods: the fat, brassy one with speeches about the importance of being fat and brassy; the slut with mother issues and speeches about regret; the frigid one who lightens up; and the morose one who learns to set aside her barbed irony at the expense of a disease-of-the-week urchin with a message of her own. Although the whole thing's too long as it is, there's barely enough room in the picture for each of the girls to have a complete narrative arc, and so we're given preachy shorthand speechifying in lieu of character complexity. It's a TIGER BEAT quiz about puberty and it's astonishingly irritating, even if you can spot glimmers of truth in there amid the weeping and screeching.
Let's start with fat and brassy Carmen (America Ferrera). Ferrera gained a great deal of critical acclaim for playing exactly this character in Real Women Have Curves but has steadily lost sympathy for her courage to be fat and brassy by constantly drawing attention to it. Forging equality with all the string beans in the business means not having to climb onto a soapbox at every opportunity about the coolness of having a giant ass. Sooner or later, you come to the realization that the only reason they cast you is because you're the girl who doesn't mind getting pigeonholed. Take the sequence in the bridal shop where Carmen delivers a long, whiny screed to her future stepmother (Nancy Travis) about how the dress size is right, but no one thought to consider that Carmen is Puerto Rican and therefore might be short and have a gigantic rear-end. Now consider the situation from the other woman's point of view; I wonder how they would've handled the scene where the stepmom pulls the tailor aside and says, "Hey, listen, I know I said size 6, but can you give me a Puerto Rican size 6? I think you know what I'm saying, nudge-nudge." Carmen's arc essentially concerns her ineffectual father (Bradley Whitford) denying his Puerto Rican ex-wife and daughter by marrying into a WASP family in lily-white suburbia. There's interest in this story, and pathos, too--not to mention a wagonload of Big Issues. And it's handled like an episode of "The Facts of Life".
Then there's Blake Lively, a gangly, awkward-seeming beauty cast inexplicably as a star athlete recently orphaned by her mother. Lively's Bridget is away for the summer at soccer camp, where she has her eye on one of the counsellor/coaches--and what Bridget wants, Bridget gets. After frittering away her virginity on a moonlit Mexican beach (sigh, isn't that always the way?), she goes into a deep depression, loses her competitive spark, and realizes that she's gone down this path at the tender age of, what, 16(?), 17(?), because her mother's died, leaving her with this unquenchable desire to act out. Does what happens to Bridget never happen to anyone? On the contrary, I imagine girls with parental issues have sex all the time--but Bridget's fall is so inevitable that her sections play out like a horror movie in which the best eventuality is that she loses her virginity consensually in what we suspect is the first in a lifetime of bad decisions. The Yin to her Yang is Lena (Alexis Bledel), a girl of Greek heritage spending the summer with her fishermen grandparents on the clear, blue Adriatic and learning, slowly, that it's only natural to want to date a hunky Grecian sailor Kostos (Michael Rady). She's an artist, of course (and Carmen's a writer, of course, and Amber Tamblyn's Tibby is a filmmaker, obviously), and there's a Romeo & Juliet thing going on with Lena's and Kostos's grandparents (of course). Histrionics ensue and then they sail around, snuggling and shit.
The most irritating story, though, belongs to moribund fledgling documentarian Tibby, who fritters away her days being disrespectful to her manager and customers at a Wal-Mart stand-in before young Bailey (Jenna Boyd) collapses in an aisle and attaches herself to Tibby's production. Yet the movie would be an entire loss without the moment where Tibby lays down the law for Carmen, explaining to her that acting "fat and brassy" is no way to start a family. The connective tissue excusing the shifts between stories (at least for a while) is a pair of thrift-store blue jeans that, to the foursome's amazement (and ours), fits every single one of them perfectly. Since this is the first summer the four girls will be separated for any amount of time, they vow to mail the pants to one another in the belief that they are indeed magical and will thus facilitate good things. If you feel stupid reading this, you can imagine how it feels to watch it and, especially, recap it. If you don't know that Bailey is doomed the second she collapses, or don't figure it out when she tries on the pants and they don't fit, or when she sits down to record a special message and we don't get to see what that message is, then you're exactly the kind of audience The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants is trolling for. Bring a tissue.
Warner presents the film on DVD in a 2.38:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer* that looks clear and vibrant, especially during the Greece sections. There the water is an indescribable blue and Bledel's colouring in a white blouse is striking. You can almost feel the bittersweet pangs of first love from the image alone--confirming that The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants was cast well, if executed with the halts and pops of veteran TV director Ken Kwapis's thirty-minute timer. Minor processing defects crop up here and there, but never to the movie's detriment. Although the DD 5.1 audio is warm and full, in a dialogue-driven (I should say "monologue-driven") film like this, it doesn't have much more to do than fill dead air.
"Fun on the Set" (5 mins.) is a gag reel in which the girls do a lot of eye-rolling and giggling interspersed with junket interviews about how everyone just loved everyone (and why not, everyone's so talented and wonderful and amazing and wonderful), while "Suckumentary" (7 mins.) is a "rough cut" of the documentary Tibby shoots throughout the picture and which mostly turns out to be a quick recap of the flick. The mini-doc's ostensibly focus is "Losers"--and that's really so very unkind, isn't it? Sure enough, watching the piece is a lot like an exquisitely childish exploitation flick trafficking in peoples' stupidity and bad habits. Napoleon Dynamite would pop a woody. "Sisters, Secrets, and the Traveling Pants: A Video Commentary" (17 mins.) has "Alexis, America, and Amber" assembled sans Blake (although they do get her on speaker-phone, hurray!) sitting around a craft services platter with a bunch of candles and eventually running commentary under a few of scenes from the film.
All the cooing and "luuuuuuv yous!" makes my skin crawl. You? Anyway, this is the most misdirected thing there ever could be; it sort of reminds me of the Goonies commentary where you could watch the cast watching the flick--the sort of thing they ought to do more of but not with teenage girls sitting on a stage dressed for "Gypsy". "A Conversation with Ann Brashares" (9 mins.) finds the rather hot-looking author of the Traveling Pants books (think Princess Leia on Endor) recounting her roots as a writer and, more particularly, as the writer of the books celebrated herein. It isn't long before she delves into a description of how the jeans love the girls unconditionally, without judgment, and while I respect that this film isn't about mean girls as seems typical of this genre, there's only so much time I want to spend thinking about magic pants.
We don't get to stay with the enchanting Ms. Brashares, either, as more of those junket soundbites creep into the piece, successfully driving me crazy. "Deleted Scenes" (7 mins.) come with optional Kwapis commentary, and as it's Kwapis's only chance to do a commentary for the film, he slips in a few anecdotes that are as banal as you'd suspect. ("The girls had no trouble with the heat at all!") These elisions include a weird soccer training montage, an awkward scene with Lena and her grandfather that Kwapis uses as a chance to call Bledel a great silent comedian, that kind of thing. Kwapis is definitely a bright guy and the choices he's made appear to have by and large benefited these characters--and for as irritating as I found the film to be, it could've been a lot, lot worse without Kwapis at the scissors. A trailer for the film that opens with Orff's "Musica Poetica" (forever associated in my head with Badlands) rounds out the disc along with forced trailers for "Gilmore girls"' fourth season and Monster-in-Law. Originally published: December 7, 2005.
*Pan-and-scan version sold separately.