Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood (review)

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Women Behaving Badly

I can’t help but imagine that this paean to codependency and manic depression was written by Melvin Udall… you know, Jack Nicholson’s misogynistic novelist in As Good as It Gets. When asked how he creates his women characters, he replies: “I think about a man, and then I remove reason and accountability.”

It’s snide reply, meant to insult the adoring female fan who asked the question, meant to imply that her love of those fictional women implicates her in a general idiocy plaguing all women. Udall’s brand of scornful nastiness infects this appallingly giddy celebration of abusive female insanity, which is hardly surprising when you consider that As Good as It Gets screenwriter Mark Andrus (who also wrote the baldly manipulative Life as a House) is partially responsible. Making things worse, though, is that this celebration of tantrum-throwing and irrationality as female virtues, aimed squarely at the moms-and-daughters crowd, sprung to life primarily through the efforts of two women: director Callie Khouri and author Rebecca Wells (the film is based upon her novels). A gal could almost forgive a guy — whose gender doesn’t fare well here, either — for wondering whether Udall’s supposition about widespread female fatuity didn’t have a grain of truth to it.
Transplanted Louisianan Sidda (Sandra Bullock: Murder by Numbers), now a playwright in New York, is as big a bipolar drama queen as her mother, Vivi (Ellen Burstyn: Requiem for a Dream), their relationship consisting almost entirely of slammed-down phones and much screaming. This may be a result of being born into a histrionic Southern world in which people name their children things like “Sidda” and “Vivi.” The men in their lives — Sidda’s boyfriend, Connor (Angus MacFadyen: Cradle Will Rock), and Vivi’s husband, Shep (James Garner: Space Cowboys) — are impossibly saintly Milquetoasts, not merely tolerating the theatrical behavior of their women but actively worshipping it. In real life, you’d grumble “bah!” and leave them to it, since they all so richly deserve one another, but here we are invited to enjoy their interconnected emotional disturbances in much the same way that a gun being discharged in the vicinity of one’s feet invites one to dance.

When the mother/daughter melodrama reaches an overbaked crescendo, Vivi’s longtime pals hop on a plane to New York, drug Sidda, kidnap her, ferret her away in rural Louisiana, and proceed to explain to her why she must forgive and forget the living hell Vivi made of her daughter’s life. I wish I could say this is an exaggeration, but it is not. Isn’t it all charmingly eccentric? Laugh, dammit! Or Callie Khouri will come to your house and kidnap you and reprogram your brain.

I refuse to bow down before Ya-Ya simply because it happens to sport one of the most amazing female casts ever, like Burstyn, and Fionnula Flanagan (The Others), Shirley Knight (The Salton Sea), and Maggie Smith (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone) as her lifelong friends; it’s shameful that there are so few roles created for women over 40, but this ain’t gainful employment. I refuse to bow down before Ya-Ya simply because Ashley Judd (High Crimes), as the younger Vivi in flashbacks, is “brave” enough to appear on camera without makeup; it’s called acting, and if Pacino can do it, so can Judd.

Mostly, though, I refuse to bow down before Ya-Ya because while it touches on real issues in women’s lives that rarely get aired onscreen, it does so in ways that are, at best, crass and false and, at worst, downright infuriating. The secret society of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood into which the child Vivi inducts her friends is a channeling of otherwise unused and unappreciated female power, one both sexual and imperious, but all we see of the potent bond of sorority it creates is weak and selfish. Ya-Ya‘s idea of friendship is acceding to societal pressure — such as the 1950s notion that you don’t talk about mental illness and don’t help a sufferer get help — when the Ya-Ya Sisterhood should be about having the strength, if only among the sisterhood itself, to transcend such expectations about how a woman should behave. Worse, concepts of forgiveness and acceptance, particular of those we love, get twisted into something unforgivable: Sidda is expected by her mother’s friends to just let drop the past — her entire childhood, one dominated by bad memories; they expect that clichéd excuses for her mother’s inexcusable behavior should be enough to dispel a lifetime of lingering, and not inappropriate, resentment. Sidda should not, according to Vivi’s friends, blame her mother for the mess she’s made of Sidda’s life, because the mess of Vivi’s life may be excused by blaming her mother and her miserable childhood.

Ya-Ya Sisterhood may touch or even upset audiences with its wannabe-raw examination of mother/daughter relationships, eventually even wrenching tears by exploiting fragile emotions — what woman doesn’t have issues with her mother? But it’s not a good cry. It’s more like a therapy session gone horribly wrong, one that dredges up uncomfortable memories without offering any genuine way to deal with them.

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