I am not immune to soap operas. I’m as big a sucker as anyone for multiple-handkerchief weepers when they’re done right. At the same time, I tackled Nick Cassevetes’ My Sister’s Keeper with no little trepidation, based in part on how much I had disliked his film of The Notebook (2004)—another assault on the tear ducts. And then there was the premise—a little girl (Abigail Breslin) genetically engineered to be the perfect biological match for her leukemia-stricken older sister (Sofia Vassileva, TV’s Medium), who sues her parents (Cameron Diaz and Jason Patric) for the right to her own body. OK, in one sense, this is powerful stuff—the moral dilemma of breeding a child for use as a sort of human-parts car—but in another, it’s a stacked-deck setup for melodrama of the treacly kind. Those things—and the Hallmark-card trailer—made me wary. The image of Cameron Diaz shaving her head to show her solidarity with her ailing daughter was just too much.
And the movie itself is just too much—while simultaneously not being enough. What might have been a pretty heady work quickly gives way to shameless manipulation and a screenplay that’s both sloppy and contrived. The fact that it’s based on a popular book by Jodi Picoult—which I understand has a very different and even more contrived ending—guarantees it a certain built-in audience. And I fully expect that audience to come down on me for not responding to the resulting film. But the truth is that I didn’t respond to it at all. There have been soapy movies that I’ve fallen prey to while they were on-screen, only to be really annoyed after the fact by the sense of having been unfairly manipulated. My Sister’s Keeper didn’t even manage that. I sat through the entire film without being caught up in the drama. The closest it came to working on my emotions was in the big courtroom scene—and that had more to do with Alec Baldwin as the lawyer handling Breslin’s case than with the actual central characters. Even while his secret—and his deeper side—were transparent and kind of hokey, Baldwin attained some degree of reality that was lacking elsewhere in the film.
While I’m sure that Cassavetes and his co-writer, Jeremy Leven (The Notebook), thought it artistically sound to attack the material by using a fragmented narrative that jumped around in time, they couldn’t make it feel right. The time shifts seem less integral than merely fussy—even if some of the flashbacks are essential to the story—and the characterizations suffer badly in the process. Worse, things that should have been heartbreakingly moving—the dying girl’s romance with another cancer patient—kept coming across as perfunctory. Rather than buy into the romance for its own sake, I had the sense that it existed to make the mother seem less of a monster than the film had been doing for the first third of its length.
More than that, the less central characters keep getting lost in the shuffle. Chief among these is the brother (TV actor Evan Ellingson), who keeps getting overlooked not just by his parents, but also by the screenplay, which requires the 20-year-old actor to pretend to be a teenager of the Corey Haim school of mouth-breather acting. He’s badly sketched in and for a chunk of the film appears to be wandering the seedier streets of L.A. in search of some kind of illicit activity. His real function, however, is to spill the beans about the impetus behind Breslin’s lawsuit at the key moment in the proceedings. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what it feels like, too.
The film isn’t unprofessionally made, though it would almost certainly be more at home on the Lifetime Channel (where three of Picoult’s other books have found incarnations), which is clearly the demographic at which Cassevetes has aimed My Sister’s Keeper. The audience for those TV movies may get more mileage out of this than I did, and that’s fine, but it left me cold. Rated PG-13 for mature thematic content, some disturbing images, sensuality, language and brief teen drinking.