Mothers. Daughters. The neverending story of Good vs. Evil
So now what, exactly, is a chick flick? Why do most critics and film culturalists determine that if a film is geared mostly toward a female audience, dealing with issues like family and friendship, love and loss, and usually featuring actresses of various stature within the business (everything from the flavor of the month to Grand Dames of the English stage) that it is simply a chick flick? Isn't any cinema just a mere movie? And why call them "chick" flicks anyway? Wouldn't a genre that wants to empower women, and make them less symbols of politically incorrect classification balk at the notion of being called a "chick"? Will we soon see the day when such terminology as "broad stories" or "wench works" is also thrown out into the crass cinematic mix? And, finally, why do they all have to be about the South? Do the genetic codes below the Mason Dixon line automatically predetermine that every single female child will be born with the ability to spout wiseass romance novel hyperboles? Does every plantation lass experience non-erotic female bonding between life-long friends who openly drink, swear, and have bats up their belfries? It's these questions of celluloid classification and cliché-ification that makes reviewing Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood so difficult. It seems presold as a gals go ga-ga cheer tearjerker. So why wouldn't guys like it as well?
Facts of the Case
Siddalee Walker is a playwright in New York. She has a new work headed for Broadway and a doting, tolerant fiancé. While giving an interview to a Time Magazine correspondent, she lets slip certain pent up feelings she has about her mother, a frantic Southern Belle in decline named Vivi Jane. The minute mama reads the less than flattering article, she goes into a typical matriarchal hissy fit. Over the next few weeks, she and her daughter exchange mutual hate mail. In order to help their friend, Caro, Teensy, and Necie, the remaining members of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, a band of blood sisters from their youth, travel to the Big Apple to speak with Sidda. Speaking turns to comic kidnapping as the Ya-Yas bring her back home to Louisiana, hole her up in a gulf shore cabin, and share their scrapbook filled with painful and pleasant recollections with her. Through flashbacks and memories, we learn the truth about Siddalee's life and her mother's private Hell. The Ya-Yas hope this will reeducate the jaded New Yorker about the shattered, traumatic existence her momma faced, and why it now may have some part in how Sidda feels about her family, herself, and her life today.
A viewer should really be warned before seeing Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. They need to understand that this will be a movie about a southern fried family at their wits and grits end over some trivial issue that happened around the time Lee surrendered to Grant. There will be quick, side glances at the whole race and racism issue, meaning that the servants will be given a certain amount of grace and dignity, but the film will also rely on their Gone with the Wind Mammy-isms from time to time to jiggle the joke factor. Yes, famous actresses from across the pond (the U.K., that is) will slum a little for a big fat set of U.S. greenbacks and a chance to throw off their goofy "foreign" dialect to sound like Cletus from The Simpsons. And don't forget the horrible family secret that could destroy them all, like the fact that Cousin Jasper was a sissy or that Blanche Dubois always depended on the kindness of strangers. Yessum, by the end of this here hick hokum you will feel the ever present essence of a bygone place and woe be gone era when people raised the Confederate Flag, drank tall and tangy mint juleps by the bucket load, and wondered what could be done to halt that dang gum integration movement.
And that is the way with most films like Ya-Ya. It's either going to be a serious exploration of hidden family misery and skeletons in the farmhouse closet ala Prince of Tides, or a grating gal gala about eccentric Southern harpies drinking and droning on about their failed dreams and unfulfilled lives, ala Steel Magnolias (without the death) or Crimes of the Heart (without the murder). Divine Sisters of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood starts out just like one of those quirky trips to Aunt Beulah's for some chickery coffee and a slice of shoo-fly pie. But something happens about a third of the way through that begins to remove the film from its girl power leanings. And it all has to do with the scripting. Just when you think another dumb as a crawdad quip is going to be uttered by the fine upstanding members of the cast, the characters stop chewing the scenery and slow down, speaking lines of able wisdom and world-weary insight. Sure, they may add a bayou drawl or a Cajun slang phrase to maintain authenticity, but when they move away from the regional ranting and speak in universal maxims, the film comes alive.
The movie will play this game for the rest of its running time. For every finely tuned character, there is another weepin' widder spouting Southern horsespit so silly it would make Forrest Gump sound like Booker T. Washington. For every two moments that ring true and heartfelt, there is another aiming directly at the manipulation monitor of your common senses, hoping to disarm it in time for the sappy melodramatic messages fired from the screenplay to sink in. Leave it to Academy Award winning screenwriter (for Thelma and Louise) and first time director Callie Khouri to provide this talented cast with such occasionally wonderful things to say, even if she did derive a good many of them from Rebecca Wells' best selling Ya-Ya novels. But also blame Khouri for not knowing when to say enough and remove the yokel yahooisms like Maggie Smith's embarrassing pronunciation of "ruffie" or everyone's desire to call everyone else "be-bay." Overall, the Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood is a very good film. However, several things about it undermine its good intentions and consistently send it back to the "chick flick" category.
Of the good, one cannot say enough about the cast. Even Sandra Bullock, best known for milking 6.72 total acting moves into a career as a top Hollywood draw, is quite fine here. Honestly, she doesn't have much to screw up except to look unhappy and then relieved. At the top of their game are Ellen Burstyn and James Garner as a distant couple who seems to like their separate ways as they long for each other emotionally. But aside from Ashley Judd, whom we will get to in a moment, the rest of the big name cast seems ill-defined. Shirley Knight and Maggie Smith are given roles filled with quirks and tics, not characters (even if each has a great line or two) and Fionnula Flanagan plays her scenes as if she is that bucky beaver wannabe Jan from Grease crossed with Eunice from The Carol Burnett Show. So it is left up to the smaller roles in the cast, the untold actors and actresses of color and character nuance to fill out this film, and they do so smashingly. Many of the actresses playing the Ya-Ya's mothers are far better than the ones playing the Ya-Yas themselves. Sure, their roles are not as flashy, but you appreciate and feel their emotional highs and lows, much more than the name actresses show off shenanigans.
And then there's Ashley Judd, otherwise known as a great actress looking for a role to match her intelligence, her wit, and her exquisite beauty. She almost has it here in the part of young Vivi (the role Ellen B plays in the modern scenes). There is a scene in particular, when her life seems to be falling apart and her desire for a husband and family is at direct odds with her personal image of her self as special. This tormenting emotional conflict plays out in a single continuous shot in front of a bathroom mirror. No dialogue, no overly dramatic music cues: just Ashley, the camera, and that face. And she really shows her acting skill here. In sensational silent moments, she lets us know everything that is going on with and within her character. There are other quiet scenes like this where Judd really shines. But this being a chick flick wannabe, there are also the mandatory scenes of ranting and raving like a rabid raccoon. And as good as Judd is in those scenes, they ring false. We have seen how she can register emotion without resorting to histrionics. We know she is driven insane by a prescription medication she is given. But these over the top demonstrations of her slipping grasp on reality, filled with feces and vomit (from her too ill for her to handle children) to the rainstorm child abuse filled with pompous thunder and overdone lightning just destroys any subtle grandeur gained.
This is a dominant cloud over the film. Bullock's character (and the viewer) is sold a story that says, if we just pay attention and learn Vivi's horrible secret, we will grow to understand, appreciate, and love her (and likewise the film). And this is a dangerous game to play psychologically and narratively with the audience. The buildup is overly melodramatic, and even begins to echo Tide's child rape as a similarly shattering event. But then it simply goes nowhere. It turns out that the big secret, that was more shocking than the thunderstorm belt whipping or the family abandonment that Vivi engages in was that…are you ready…you'll never guess…THAT'S RIGHT! Vivi was hospitalized in a nut house for six months (a nice nut house, mind you, but a nut house all the same). OH THE SHAME! OH THE HORROR! Break out the handkerchiefs and…Wait. That's not so bad. In this day and age when people check in and out of rehab and therapy sessions so often that it's like visiting their summer home or the house by the lake, a six month stint in the loony bin just doesn't provide that necessary screenplay spark. Especially since we see or hear about very few of the ill effects on the family. We learn that her nervous breakdown led to some hard times and bad feelings, but what about years down the road. We never fully understand why Siddi holds such haunted memories from the time since her mother's commitment.
Still, with all this negative nelly-ism going on, one could question whether Ya-Ya is any good at all, and the answer is a flat out yes…if you take it a certain way. Remove it from its desperate to be a woman's weeper roots and look on it as a comment on the whole southern belle gothic ideal as well as the genre of female films. Recognize that several times it subverts the ill-conceived formulas to tell an honest tale of damaged and defiant people. See the horrible plot twist secret for what it is, a very bad time in the lives of the characters (not some mind altering body-defiling act of depravity that it hints at being) and enjoy the small wonders, when they are around. If you focus on scenes like the news of Vivi's fiancé being shot down during WWII, or the touching exchange of forgiveness and acceptance between the relationship-less Garner and Burstyn, you will have a marvelous time. You can even enjoy the gentle, intelligent humor (though it is surrounded by broad moments of gutter-mouthed verbal slapstick) and listen to the insightful, world wise truths the characters occasionally speak in between their usual Hee Haw homegrown hillbilly business. More times than not the film succeeds as a tough, tender, comic slice of life.
Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood is a lot like its juvenile blood brotherhood (or make that sisterhood) bonding ritual. It's filled with words and phrases that mean a lot, but are jumbled together in a way that is occasionally cloying, sometimes irritating and almost always in touch with its Driving Miss Daisy desperation. It's a movie that can't be any more than it is, and should be taken as such. As with any derived from a bestseller bit of cinema, it must have been a far more fantastic read, with the ability of the author to suggest personalities and create outlandish fictional set pieces that movies, grounded in the reality of actors, locations and logistics have a hard time reconstructing. And again, since novels are loaded with plot and perceptions, a film has to carve away vital material for the sake of its inherent short time frame nature. So you will have to allow Ya-Ya some slack, even if it adds scenes and changes major plot points for the sake of its version of the story (more on this later).
As a major summer 2002 release, Warner Brothers pulls out all the stops for the DVD release. While there is a full screen version, the less said about any non-OAR releases the better. As a single disc set packed with extras, there is always a risk of compression or artifacting issues. But the 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen image presented is fair clear and sharp. Occasionally, you can see some transfer concerns creeping up, usually around the edges of the night sequences, but there are a couple of crucial underwater sequences that look absolutely perfect. And again, this is a movie with two commentaries, a section of deleted scenes, an interactive scrapbook and various other extras, so the excellent quality of the image attests to Warners' fine handling of the disc (now, if we could just get them away from those awful snapper cases…). Sonically, the Ya-Ya Sisterhood boasts another round of musical archeology as new found pop sensation ala O Brother, Where Art Thou? by T-Bone Burnett. And what seemed novel and intriguing in the Coen classic comedy is derivative and tired here.
Sure, there are a great many forgotten and downright unheard of classics unearthed for the soundtrack. And some exceptionally bravura performances. But director Khouri doesn't have the same handle on musical incorporation and commentary like the Coens. During party and play sequences, the music fits well. But on other occasions, it sticks out like hip-hop in a kid's cartoon. And unlike the previous use of archaic folk tunes, Cajun stomps and swamp water boogies just don't have the same traditionalist staying power. There is hardly a single song you'll remember once the film is over. While it may be unfair to continuously lump a first timer (even with her pedigree) in with the seasoned pros, but you can sense the pressure from the studio marketing machine in CD sales overdrive, hoping to recapture white lightning in a bottle a second time out. It's a good thing that Burnett is featured as part of the commentary track. It gives him a chance to defend the choices, and discuss their inclusion and use by the director in the film. It offers some useful insight. But this O Sister Where Is Ya-Ya just doesn't gel. Overall, the Dolby Digital 5.1 is incredible, with perhaps a little over emphasis on the tunes and music, but good use is made of all channels and there is a really lazy southern summer feel to the aural presentation.
But by far the more vital and intriguing part of this DVD, and what should have been an essential part of the film itself, are the over 20 minutes of deleted scenes from the movie. They are absolutely mandatory to understanding the complete story here. Frankly, one can see a better edited version of this film being created by tech savvy DVD owners with a copy of the film, a DVD-R drive, and a large amount of Scarlet O'Hara tolerance on their hands. Call it Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood: The Plantation Edit. The material deleted from the film does so much to flesh out the character of Vivi and the reasons why her own adolescence was such a traumatic mess (including a brilliant sequence involving a trip to a convent) that to leave it out seems criminal. It is difficult, if not impossible, to comprehend why it was discarded. Some of the other scenes involve Maggie Smith and Shirley Knight, and again, they would have helped us get a better handle on their characters. But aside from a couple of small scenes where a line or a look was cut, each of the deleted scenes should be viewed as a critical part in the movie's storyline and your viewing experience. They will definitely clear up questions in your mind, and add that necessary characterization that the film proper seems to skim over.
As a final set of extras, there are two commentary tracks. The first features about two thirds of the production staff, including the director, associate producers, editors et cetera. However, writer director Khouri dominates overall, even if T-Bone Burnett is constantly interjecting to explain what we are listening to. There is a great deal of insight into the mechanics behind the film, the joy of working with great actors, and the unbelievable North Carolina heat. It does occasionally degenerate into a game of "point out the obvious" (a scene filled with crawfish gets a "mudbugs" response from one of the commentators), and there is far too much focus on the music (as again it's poorly utilized here). And for having so many participants it is very sparse in places. Long passages will play and there is nothing said even over scenes where some added explanation would have been greatly appreciated. The second commentary, featuring Khouri and Ashley Judd is more entertaining and anecdotal. Of special interest to all you Judd fans out there is the constant references by Ashley as to how the characters on screen are "just like" her family. One can just imagine Naomi and Wynona sitting around the kitchen table pitching fits at each other, Ashley occasionally adding her own acerbic southern spin. Khouri tends to repeat stories she told in the production commentary, so since it is more entertaining and less sparse, stick with Ms. Judd's track. After all, how else would you find out about Wynona's memorization of the Ya-Ya's trademark insults?
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Mental illness. Is there a single member of the fictional human hate hole known as the Deep South who doesn't suffer from it? It appears anyone who lived as part of those wonderful golden times of "colored only" hotels and drinking fountains, the KKK, and random lynch mobs feels the need, guilt burrowing into their narrow minded brain, to blow a nervous gasket or two. Sure, it may be a gross over-exaggeration or slanderous stereotyping of those members of the rebel-yelling republic to call them a bunch of race-baiting bumpkins. But unless you chalk up their raging lunacy to massive bouts of sunstroke or there being something in that Gulf Stream water that turns your average plantation belle into a banshee wailing bedlam dweller, all this insanity is downright ridiculous. It's a rock hard cliché as concrete as mastodon dung and it also really undermines Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. It would be nice to have some Georgians or Alabamians who don't howl at the moon and carry on imaginary conversations with the long deceased cast members from Gone with the Wind. Sure, the script tries to undermine the stereotypes present in almost every version of this tired tall tale, but in the end, it's all about the brain medicine, baby.
And from the commentary track, one learns that the literary integrity of the original source novels for the film (Divine Secrets and Little Altars Everywhere) has been throw aside for cinematic foolishness and personal politics. Apparently, the books were just the "inspiration" for the movies, or maybe just a slight "suggestion," since so much of the book's plotting and format is changed for film. To those unfamiliar with the works, this will be meaningless. For those who love them, engulf them, live their lives based on them they are in for a sad shameful shock. It's interesting to hear Khouri talk about how certain moments were changed because of fanatical personal zeal. In the novel, Sidda remembers going on an all important elephant ride with her mother. Khouri does not believe in the "victimization" of animals, so she changed it to a plane ride. Basically the same thing, right? And after all, to paraphrase Khouri, an African elephant could not possibly tolerate the sweltering North Carolina heat. While it is probably just nitpicking, it is also depressing that Hollywood finds the need to alter a massive bestseller to make it more dramatic or worse, "entertaining" to an audience. It seems that everyone who enjoyed the book as written word was sold a false sense of enjoyment. Only via the big screen reconfiguration could true personal amusement be achieved.
Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood is not necessarily a chick flick. Sure, it fills the screen with enough precepts from the woman's weeper formula to ripen a whole bushel of Fried Green Tomatoes and send The Joy Luck Club into further fits of jubilant fortunes. Both the Lifetime Movie Network and Oxygen are probably cat fighting right now over the broadcast rights. But more times than not, it transcends these tired travails to make something enjoyable and entertaining for any gender. Sure, some of the characters are mere sketches, many of the actors view their Acting challenge as a chance to channel Junior Samples (the number is BR-549, bebay), and plot and emotional resolutions are overly pat. But thanks to the intelligence of the script and direction by Callie Khouri, most of these missteps won't matter and your average audience members won't care. They will be caught up in the lives of these characters and moved by the final moments between mother and daughter. And they will hear the solemn words and enjoy the arcane rituals of the most secret, sacred society in human emotional existence. No, not the pagan pleasures of Ya-Ya sisterhood. The antebellum anxiety of the Southern family.
Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood is acquitted of all charges, except for being a borderline bit of Southern silliness. Still, the cast and crew are free to go. Warner Brothers is also found not guilty of crimes against DVD packaging and are commended for their excellent treatment of the title.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary by Director/Screenwriter Callie Khouri and Actor Ashley Judd
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