Sony // 2012 // 89 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // May 7th, 2013
A contemporary version of the beloved stage play and classic film.
One of the weird transitions that's occurred in Hollywood since studios lost their iron grip is that filmmakers no longer look to the New York stage for material. Sure, the occasional musical or play gets a shot at the big screen, but it's usually because of an emphasis on popularity and not the vital intellectual life found on the stage. One of the more successful stage-to-screen adaptations was Steel Magnolias. By collecting several generations of talented female actors while adding in rising stars Julia Roberts and Daryl Hannah, the original 1989 film took sparkling dialogue and a potent blend comedy and tragedy to critical and commercial success. Never content to leave well enough alone, the Lifetime network commissioned a remake, but this cast would be made up of the best and brightest African-American actresses. Thankfully the changes in ethnicity don't impact the story in any way, and under the guidance of workmanlike director Kenny Leon we get another well-executed take on the poignant lives of everyday people.
On the eve of Shelby's (Condola Roshad, Sex and the City 2) wedding, doctors have told her that a kidney disease will preclude her from having children. Her husband-to-be says it doesn't matter, and the film picks up the next day as preparations are being made. Part of those preparations take place at Truvy's Beauty salon, where Truvy (Jill Scott, Obsessed) and her new hire Annelle (Adepero Oduye, Half Nelson) tend to Shelby's mother M'Lynn (Queen Latifah, Chicago), local widow Clairee (Phylicia Rashad, The Cosby Show), and cranky neighbor Ouiser (Alfre Woodward, Star Trek: First Contact). After the wedding, the film follows the ups-and-downs of Shelby's life through her relationship with these women.
Unsurprisingly, the main attraction of Steel Magnolias is its cast. Queen Latifah has shown herself adept at anchoring movies (Last Holiday) and doesn't disappoint. Here she has to do much of the dramatic heavy lifting, leaving the bulk of the comedic work to co-stars Phylicia Rashad and Alfre Woodard whose near-perfect timing with screenwriter Sally Robinson's barbed dialogue make them convincing inhabitants of this small town. Jill Scott plays the beauty salon master-of-ceremonies with a warmth that masks the pain of her husband's continued unemployment. The younger actresses each get their moments to shine as well. Condola Rashad gets to play the admirably willful Shelby, and Adepero Oduye hits all the right notes as the shy newcomer. Unfortunately, film is a bit stagey in places, and the direction a bit more generic than one might expect for a project of this caliber.
Steel Magnolias is basically a weepy three-hanky picture, so those who don't want their emotions toyed with should steer clear. I'm a little disappointed to find the running time is only 89 minutes (versus the 117 of the original film). Obviously, the story was cut to fit its telefilm time slot, but the plot is a bit choppier than it should be. The gentlemen in the film are the ones who get short shrift, squandering its male talent in what amount to bit parts, which is still more than the stage version where the men are discussed but never shown. We get gestures of character development -- Shelby's husband is a lawyer, Truvy's husband is unemployed -- but the focus is solely on the ladies.
Steel Magnolias' contemporary television adaptation offers up a clean and bright presentation in standard def 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen. Detail is respectable, colors are saturated, and black levels are consistent. It's not the kind of film that's judged on looks, but it's highly watchable on DVD. The Dolby 5.1 Surround track is similarly workmanlike. Dialogue is clean and clear from the center, but surround activity is pretty minimal. Sony offers no extras, which is sad since a group of actors this funny and talented could have at the very least generated a gag reel.
Though very few people would argue that Steel Magnolias needed a remake, this TV version admirably compresses the narrative for an ensemble of actresses who are impressive from beginning to end.
Not perfect, but not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 89 Minutes
Release Year: 2012
MPAA Rating: Not Rated