All of the ingredients for a good, old-fashioned chick flick are here – an Oscar-winning cast willing to pull out all the stops; quirky, flawed, but relentlessly adorable and completely devoted characters with cute names; handsome, supportive, understanding, and completely devoted boyfriends (one with a cute accent); and a mother-daughter reconciliation. Everyone is just as colorful as can be. It even has a built-in audience of fans who made the book into a sleeper sensation.
But it doesn’t quite make it into the pantheon of chick flick greatness, alongside such classics as “Terms of Endearment” and “Steel Magnolias.” The story has more flash than heart, and the resolution is a little too pat and easy. We hear a lot about the great friendship but don’t really feel it. There is something truly unsavory about the portrayal of knocking someone out and abducting her as madcap and charming. And the plot is a Swiss cheese of logical holes. Still, it is a great pleasure to watch these fine actresses give their all, and to hear the soundtrack by T. Bone Burnett, the guy behind the magnificent Grammy-winning soundtrack of “O Brother Where Art Thou.”
Playwright Sidalee Walker (Sandra Bullock), preparing for a Broadway opening of her autobiographical play, tells a reporter for Time Magazine that her childhood was troubled, and her mother, Vivi (Ellen Burstyn) throws a fit and stops talking to her. So Vivi’s lifelong friends, who as children in a moonlight ceremony involving blood, chocolate, and very elaborate headgear, declared themselves to be the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, take off for the Big City to kidnap Sidalee so that they can explain a few things to her.
Now it would all be too easy for them to just sit down with her in her apartment in Manhattan and talk to her. So, they put knock-out-powder in her drink (am I the only one who thinks that it is impossible to make a rufie anything but horrifying) and, with the help of her devoted Irish fiancé Connor (Angus MacFadyen), pour her into an airplane seat. She wakes up in a secluded cabin, where the Ya-Yas present her with a scrapbook that will help her understand and forgive her mother.
So, we go back in time and meet Vivi as a spirited young girl and teenager, and, after her fiancé is killed in World War II, a broken-hearted young woman, and a loving but overwhelmed mother. She drinks and smokes a lot. She doesn’t love her husband – she is still angry with him because he is alive and the man she really loved is dead. She tells Sidda to pretend to drown so that she can pretend to rescue her. But when it comes time for a real rescue, when the kids all get sick at once, she cannot handle it and runs away. And of course the children blame themselves.
Sidda learns that it was not her fault and it was not really Vivi’s fault, either, and Vivi learns a few things, too, so there is a happy ending for everyone. But it never feels real. Part of it is the absence of the people far more likely than Vivi’s friends to help Sidda sort through everything – where are her sisters and the other petites ya-yas (children of the Ya-Yas)? It is superficial and a little manipulative – the big revelation that is supposed to answer all questions is not so big and leaves more than a few questions still open.
The acting is a joy, though, especially the divine Maggie Smith as a steel magnolia who drags around an oxygen tank and tosses off quips drier than any martini. Burstyn and Judd do a terrific job of melding their performances so that you can believe they are playing the same character.
Parents should know that the movie features characters who drink and smoke a lot, and drinking is shown to be a light-hearted way to bond with friends, though alcohol abuse is shown to be painful for the children of the drinker. There are mild sexual references including inexplicit nudity. While the main characters object to racist remarks in very strong terms, and the feelings of one black character are treated respectfully, the treatment of the black characters is stereotyped. They are portrayed as devoted family retainers. A character abuses prescription drugs, apparently inadvertently. A mother neglects and abuses her children.
Families who see this movie should talk about why it was so difficult for the characters to talk with each other about their feelings.