Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood



USA 2002 : Callie Khouri : 116 mins

This overcooked tale of a dysfunctional Louisiana family is dominated by Ellen Burstyn’s spirited turn as matriarch Vivi Walker, mother of four and member of the self-proclaimed ‘Ya Ya Sisterhood’ with lifelong pals Teensy (Fionnula Flanagan), Necie (Shirley Knight) and Caro (Maggie Smith). When her playwright daughter Sidda (top-billed Sandra Bullock) complains about her tough childhood in an interview with Time magazine, the volatile Vivi goes predictably ballistic.

Desperate to mend the breach in time for Sidda’s impending marriage to nice-guy Connor (Angus MacFadyen), the other three Ya Yas drug and kidnap Sidda (in a nice way, kind of) transporting her down south from Manhattan to their Louisiana hideout. There they regale Sidda with the Sisterhood’s ‘Divine Secrets,’ tracing the tumultuous events in Vivi’s life that led her to marry ineffectual nice-guy Shep (James Garner) and submerge her own ferocious ambitions to raise four children. The stage is thus set for a tearful reconciliation.

The structure of the film is grindingly mechanical – as Sidda flicks through the Ya Yas’ ornate photo-album, Khouri inserts a series of sepia-tinged, muzak-heavy flashbacks featuring Ashley Judd as the younger Vivi. Judd ages from about an exuberant teen to a pill-popping, mentally unstable maturity, and it isn’t a very convincing transition – we’re unfortunately much closer to the hokey, cosy contrivances of Riding In Cars With Boys (multiple flashbacks of an unsympathetic, creatively frustrated mother) than to the more disturbing terrain of Requiem For A Dream (well-meaning mother abuses prescription pills and ends up committed – in Vivi’s case, after some sub-Mommie Dearest histrionics on a stormy night).

Requiem was, of course, the film in which Burstyn scored a major personal triumph with her harrowing, Oscar-worthy performance. It’s good to see her in another prominent role – and she does manage to elevate the material whenever she’s on screen. But Vivi hardly represents much of a stretch – likewise, the Ya Yas scarcely tax the abilities of Smith, Flanagan or Knight: we’re a long way from the intricate female-ensemble work of, say, Altman’s Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean.

This is a phonier sort of enterprise, one which makes much fuss about its geographical setting but says roughly as much about Louisiana as Angel Heart. It’s notable, for instance that, Kentucky-raised Judd apart, none of Divine Secrets‘ main cast is from anywhere near the Deep South. The ladies cope OK on the accent front – which is more than can be said for McFadyen, a terrific Scots actor who here ladles out his lines in a toe-curling leprechaun strain of Movie Oirish. Perhaps he was simply bored and fancied having a bit of fun – like Garner, he’s stuck in a role which is little more than a thankless plot contrivance.

But the two men are, nevertheless, infinitely better served than Cherry Jones and Gina McKee, both of whom are criminally wasted in tiny bit-parts among the 1930s flashbacks. After this and Signs it’s easy to see why theatre star Jones so seldom bothers with the movies – as for McKee, it literally is a case of blink and you’ll miss her. Her character of Genevieve must have been much more prominent in the two novels by Rebecca Wells on which the screenplay (by Khouri, but ‘adapted by’ Mark Andrus) was based – and the books presumably also say something about what happened to Sidda’s three siblings when they grew up. The film never bothers, concentrating solely on the Sidda and Vivi conflict, with a token mention or two of the long-suffering Shep.

Male audience members (especially the heterosexual ones) will feel great kinship for the film’s male characters – small in number, sidelined and largely ignored. Divine Secrets is targeted so squarely at a specific audience that it makes no concessions beyond that demographic group. And while women over 40 could indeed lap up every hokey scene and contrivance, anyone else may find it two hours of increasingly hard work, for very little real reward.

18th September, 2002
(seen 17th, Warner Village, Newcastle)

by Neil Young
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