A scene from 'Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood'
Courtesy Photo
** stars 116 minutes | Rated: PG-13
Opened: Friday, June 7, 2002
Directed by Callie Khouri

Starring Sandra Bullock, Ellen Burstyn, Ashley Judd, Maggie Smith, Fionnula Flanagan, Shirley Knight, James Garner, Angus MacFadyen, Cherry Jones, Matthew Settle


A curl-up-on-the-couch flick if there ever was one. But please don't make your boyfriend or husband watch it with you. He won't be able to pretend he can stand it, and he'll just use it as ammunition next time he wants to drag you to a movie in which a lot of stuff blows up.

   VIDEO RELEASE: 11.05.2002


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Drama queen mom, daughter hash out differences in emotionally honest but otherwise inept estrogen epic

By Rob Blackwelder

All book-to-film adaptations lose something in the translation, but the narrative gaps are simply insurmountable in the two-hankie estrogen fest "The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood."

Brimming with talented actresses, none of whom steps on another's toes in across-the-board strong performances, this emotionally genuine bonding picture based on Rebecca Wells' novel stars Sandra Bullock as Sidda, a bitter New York playwright hijacked into visiting her Louisiana family home and her alcoholic mother, a Southern drama queen played by Ellen Burstyn.

Mother's life-long friends, who have collectively called themselves the "Ya-Ya Sisterhood" since a mock-voodoo "ceremony" when they were young girls, have decided it's time for the two to bury the hatchet after a lifetime of sniping.

Triggered by Bullock's reading of a meticulously maintained Ya-Ya scrapbook, tales are told by the other Ya-Yas (Maggie Smith, Fionnula Flanagan and Shirley Knight playing aged and eccentric Southern belles), begetting flashbacks of Mom's boo-hoo hard life backstory. Soon Sidda learns that before becoming a walking histrionic hyperbole, Vivi (Burstyn in the present, Ashley Judd in the past) lost a lover in World War II and had a major bout with clinical depression, which is supposed to make the audience and Sidda forgive her for being a bloody gawdawful mother.

Afraid we'll hate Vivi, writer-director Callie Khouri (writer of "Thema and Louise") sugar-coats and minimizes her parental egotism and abuse, showing four or five good memories of Sidda's childhood for every bad one and launching into melodramatics to cover up serious deficiencies in the plot.

In the 1950s we see Judd's Vivi being a loving mom until she explodes in anger one day, screaming and throwing plateware in a scene that is meant to demonstrate a change in her behavior. But what brought it on? Don't expect to find answers here. But do expect to be presented with James Garner as Sidda's supposedly wonderful father, who never does a thing to protect his children from psycho-Vivi.

The film almost entirely ignores the fact that Sidda has a brother and sister except as they figure into these childhood flashbacks, which weave a completely out-of-whack timeline. If Sidda was 10 or so in the late 1950s/early 1960s, as seen in her memories, why is she only Sandra Bullock's age in what is clearly the present? By my math she be pushing 50 at least.

Sidda seems to know everything about the Ya-Ya Sisterhood (she recognizes the scrapbook and knows details about the ceremonies they performed as kids) yet she knows nothing whatsoever about any other aspect of her mother's life -- even the stuff we know she witnessed. She's none too bright either. Despite being told her mom's first love was in WWII and was a brother of one of the Ya-Yas (so she certainly would have met him if he were still alive), she still can't put two and two together about what happened to the guy.

Khouri doesn't even try to identify which Ya-Ya is which in the scenes of their youth and the film is plagued by random episodes that lead nowhere, as when the aged Ya-Yas pick up Vivi in a convertible and tell her they're going somewhere important. The scene ends without them arriving anywhere and the trip is never mentioned again. A similar problem arises in the character of Wiletta (Leslie Silva), an African-American maid of a rich relative who exists only to demonstrate that the Ya-Yas are Southerners but not bigots. The character simply pops up from time to time in unrelated scenes without reason or explanation.

Aimed directly at the "Beaches"/"Steel Magnolias"/"Fried Green Tomatoes" demographic, "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood" fully expects to get by on its heartstring pulling and its heartfelt performances. The actresses so clearly enjoy sinking their teeth into these sincere, sometimes daffy Southern souls that it's truly a pity they couldn't have a coherent script to work from.

But this adaptation can't even manage a reasonable finale, glossing over real interpersonal problems with the reveal of a big secret that's supposed to make everything OK.

I don't mind having my heartstrings pulled, but don't treat me like a fool.


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