Sister Act

Riding with the top off: From left, Katy Selverstone, Kierston Warren, and Ashley Judd.Photo: Michael Tackett.

Tears, heartbreak, mothers and daughters, blood oaths, porch swings, dried corsages pressed into scrapbooks, cakewalks, and Louisiana accents as wide as a barn door – these are but a few of the ingredients in the gumbo that is Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. In her directorial debut, Callie Khouri, who wrote Thelma and Louise, appears to be single-handedly trying to revive the “woman’s picture.” It’s as if she were rebuking the current men’s-club movie scene by cramming into her opus every last bit of female trouble that has been kept out of all the other movies.

Not that Divine Secrets is an eye-opener. It’s essentially an old-fashioned slapstick weepie in which moral lessons are displayed like placards and the women parade about like a pack of belles. Khouri, working from Mark Andrus’s adaptation of Rebecca Wells’s novels Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and Little Altars Everywhere, isn’t merely trying to rejuvenate the women’s picture; she’s also attempting to reintroduce southern-fried sensibility to the movie menu, with immense help from a T Bone Burnett and David Mansfield soundtrack compilation offering up blues, gospel, Cajun, and even a new Bob Dylan tune. The results are somewhat flavorful but inauthentic: The cast, which includes Sandra Bullock, Ellen Burstyn, Maggie Smith, Shirley Knight, Ashley Judd, and Fionnula Flanagan, carries on with such a whoop and holler that they are rarely believable. (We could be watching a touring company of superannuated Scarlett O’Haras.) They’re preposterously actressy and one-note, a distinct liability in a movie filled with pop-psych bromides about how others can help us to discover who we truly are. In Divine Secrets, there’s nothing much to discover: Everything is right up-front, all fluttery and yowling.

The thinness of the movie, which is what is intermittently enjoyable about it, is at odds with its sob-sister pretensions. Sandra Bullock’s Sidda Lee Walker is a prominent playwright who fled her mother and her hometown years ago for New York. A recent Time profile of her, in which she alludes to a bad upbringing, sends her mother, Vivi (Burstyn), into a phone-slamming, family-photo-burning snit. Vivi’s lifelong friends – they call themselves the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, though Yak-Yak would be more accurate – intervene to reunite mother and daughter. They all have their appointed personalities: Teensy (Flanagan) is rich and no-nonsense and tools about in a yellow Rolls-Royce; Caro (Smith), with her emphysema rasp and portable oxygen tank, is the weary wit; Necie (Knight) is the shy one. There are also two prominent men, Vivi’s sweet and long-suffering husband, Shep (James Garner), and Sidda’s fiancé, Connor (Angus MacFadyen), who has patiently been waiting seven years for her to marry him. The men in this movie are so “understanding” they’re almost comical. Their Job-like patience is supposed to be a testament to the enduring worth of women.

The film is set in the nineties, but Khouri frequently flashes back to the sixties and late thirties. This is meant to give resonance to the high jinks, but mostly we just seem to be watching a mishmash of different movies. Ashley Judd plays Vivi as a young mother, and it’s not easy to discern in her mercurial moods the stomping Gorgon-with-a-heart-of-gold she turns into. The other women, in flashback, have even less personality. I suppose we should all be grateful that we have a southern movie that isn’t, for a change, a gothic, but the hankie overload here isn’t much of a corrective.

Early on, Sidda remarks that if she had had an easy childhood, she would have had nothing to write about. She’s an acclaimed playwright, but if it took a rumble with the Ya-Yas to open her eyes to her mother, how good an observer could she be? It’s not as if Vivi is subtle. Divine Secrets is all about letting go of your painful past, but it also exults in that pain. A sharper movie might have justified the exultation, but judging from this one, Sidda would have been better off with less pain – and more therapy.

Ben Affleck plays CIA analyst Jack Ryan in The Sum of All Fears, and he’s quite a bit younger than the previous Ryans: Alec Baldwin in Hunt for Red October and Harrison Ford in Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger. Since I’ve never been a big fan of Tom Clancy to begin with, this whippersnapper revisionism doesn’t miff me the way, I gather, it does others. With his Roger Ramjet profile and frat-boy insouciance, Affleck is a lot more entertaining than those other guys. He takes himself less seriously, although, ironically, this new movie, because of its subject matter, hits a lot closer to home than the previous Clancy concoctions. The Sum of All Fears is about what happens when a nuclear weapon falls into the wrong hands, and it’s impossible to watch it – including a full-blown scene where Baltimore is nuked during the Super Bowl – and not think of the world outside the movie theater. This real-world connection is ultimately what does the movie in. Phil Alden Robinson, who directed from a script by Paul Attanasio and Daniel Pyne, is an accomplished craftsman, but his movie has been upstaged by the sum of our fears. The staunch heroics, frantic presidential huddles, and hairbreadth rescues all seem tinny and escapist, too Cold Warrior–ish, for what’s really going on now.

Because it incorporated our raging lunacies and turned them into apocalyptic farce, Dr. Strangelove was far more memorable than any of the “straight” nuclear thrillers that came out at the same time, like Fail-Safe. The Sum of All Fears is based on a 1991 book and went into production before September 11, and it should not be faulted for failing to capture the national mood – whatever that is. But the fact remains: We can’t take these nuclear thrillers in the same complacent way anymore. When we see Alan Bates in this movie playing a neo-Nazi bad guy with his finger on the trigger, he’s a pale stand-in for the real enemy. He’s like a refugee from spectre. Right now, Hollywood doesn’t know how to deal with the terrorist threat – whether to exploit it or run for cover. My guess is that audiences won’t want to see weak derivatives of the nightly news. What’s needed is a Dr. Strangelove for our times. But who in Hollywood these days has the gumption to green-light such a folly?

Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood
Directed by Callie Khouri; starring Sandra Bullock, Ellen Burstyn, and Ashley Judd.
The Sum of All Fears
Directed by Phil Alden Robinson; starring Ben Affleck and Alan Bates.

Sister Act