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Family Matters

Bad mother in Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood; fake brother in The Importance of Being Earnest.



Remember The Monster At the End of This Book? It's the Sesame Street tale starring Grover, who informs us early on that at the end of the book, a monster will appear. As the book proceeds, Grover becomes progressively more panicked about seeing this monster. On the last page, he realizes that the monster at the end of the book is himself -- lovable Grover -- and that there was nothing to fear but (ahem) fear itself. The trouble with Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood is that the monster at the end of the movie is more like Grover than Godzilla.

The first scene shows four young girls in the '30s creeping out late one night to perform a sacred ritual of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood -- the bond that will keep them together as lifelong friends. Fast-forward "many moons." We meet Sidda (Sandra Bullock) being interviewed by Time magazine in the Broadway theater where her newest play is in rehearsal. The interview emphasizes Sidda's troubled Louisiana childhood and the colorful mother who troubled it. Next we meet mother Vivi (Ellen Burstyn), queen of the Ya-Yas, drinking coffee and reading Time. She reads the offending passages and is immediately upset, throwing her full coffee cup at the wall, narrowly missing husband Shep (James Garner, showing us with his nonreaction that this is just another day with Vivi). After a brief long-distance showdown of the wills between Vivi and Sidda, the Ya-Yas -- now zesty, aged drama queens -- fly to New York and kidnap Sidda (literally – they drug her) so that they can show her why Vivi is the way she is. What follows is a series of flashbacks showing the ups and downs of the Ya-Yas through World War II, children, death, and Gone With the Wind, meant to encourage Sidda to understand and forgive her mother.

The monster at the end is the series of incidents that led to Sidda's childhood being such a wreck. Everyone talks about the Secret, and we spend a long movie getting to it. Perhaps I am spoiled by better Southern gothic like The Prince of Tides and Fried Green Tomatoes, which both provided suspense and charming quirkiness in appropriate, palatable amounts. Now, those films had secrets! Sex, murder, adultery, lesbians, and barbecue -- all in grand Southern-fried style, played delicately through funny and serious moments alike. By the time Sisterhood wraps up, it is difficult to understand what Sidda is whining about. We are led to expect something truly horrible -- even with the light, fun tone of most of the film. We don't get it, and everyone in the film treats the Secret like some "divine" mystery. It isn't. And Sidda, as a young girl, is present during all of the events that end up undoing her mother, so I guess we are to assume that this otherwise perceptive playwright has suffered some amnesia that prohibits her from remembering things we watch her see.

At the heart of the movie is Bullock, whose acting range is best suited to light dramas or light comedies. The twists and turns of the narrative derail her, and while she tries hard (she always does, God bless her), she never quite keeps up with the shifting gears of this film. The rest of the cast is great, high-caliber performers all. The Ya-Yas are a hoot: Shirley Knight, Fionnula Flanagan, and Maggie Smith, who by herself is a hoot. She has some of the best lines in the film, interrupted occasionally by her gasps for oxygen from the tank she wheels behind her. Magnificent, though, are Burstyn and Ashley Judd, who plays the young Vivi in her best performance to date. The movie shines when these two are onscreen and flails when they aren't.

So the monster at the end of the book looks more like Grover than a velociraptor. That will be fine for the many fans of the popular book and for anyone who likes their laughs Southern-style.

The first time I saw Oscar Wilde's play The Importance of Being Earnest was several years ago at a tiny liberal arts college in a small town. The experience of the actors was, for the most part, very limited, and the production values left much to the imagination. Additionally, the two ambiguous actors playing Algernon and Jack were far more interested in each other than they were in generating convincing onstage chemistry with their female romantic leads. There was no good reason for this production to work, but it did. In fact, it sang. The script is just so perfect and the lines so genuinely funny that, truly, anyone can say them and generate some amount of laughter and respect. So it is all the more disappointing that the latest film version, with some of the brighter talents and wits of contemporary filmmaking, is just not very funny. As I sat in the theater, I longed for that college production, Algernon deadpanning all his wittiest lines to the audience and addressing his scene partners only when flippantly directing a barb at their expense. I missed how it was obvious that the cakes served in Jack's countryside manor were Little Debbie Swiss Cake Rolls sliced into quarters.

The plot is simple -- I suspect so that Wilde could hang as much fancy upon it as humanly possible without bogging it down in detail. Algernon (Rupert Everett) and Jack (Colin Firth) are friends in London at the turn of the last century. During the play, we learn that they both lead a life of tiny white lies: Jack lives roguishly as Earnest in the city and as the more respectable Jack in the country. "Earnest" is an invented older brother -- the perfect nonexistent patsy for avoiding expensive restaurant bills and the like. Algernon has an invented friend too, Bunbury, an invalid who lives in constant discomfort and who conveniently "needs" Algernon's attentions whenever an unattractive social commitment presses -- particularly when Algernon's aunt, Lady Bracknell (Judi Dench), is involved.

Jack is in love with Bracknell's daughter Gwendolyn (Frances O'Connor) but is considered an unsuitable suitor, as he has no parentage to speak of. As an infant, he was found in a handbag in a Victoria Station cloakroom ("To lose one's parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as misfortune," Lady Bracknell snaps at the expectant Jack. "To lose both looks like carelessness."), and he is advised to produce some relations quickly if he is to find a place on Bracknell's list of potential husbands for Gwendolyn. Jack retreats to the country to look for any trace of lineage and to attend to his ward, the beautiful and intelligent young Cecily (Reese Witherspoon). Algernon, taken by Jack's stories of his blossoming ward, travels to Jack's estate under the guise of "Earnest," thereby producing for the countryfolk the long-lost "brother" they had never met but have despised from Jack's tales of his excesses. Algernon wastes no time in courting young Cecily, and soon Gwendolyn herself sneaks to the manor only to find two Earnests -- and yet no Earnests. The rest of the play is dedicated to sorting out the mess.

The cast is great, though only Everett (the perfect Wilde-ian hero) and O'Connor have the requisite amount of fun with their parts. Dench, unfortunately, is directed with such a heavy hand that many of her funniest moments are played for sympathy rather than the ridiculous social frivolity she dispenses. Firth plays a stiff, unlikable cad not unlike his turn in Bridget Jones's Diary, and while Jack is certainly the straight man of this story, it would have been nice to see him loosen up a little. He's not helped by director Oliver Parker, who spends so much time trying to "open" the play up with lush vistas, chase scenes, and a truly gratuitous hot-air balloon that he ignores what makes this play so hilarious: wit and fun.

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