While there’s nothing exactly — or at least actively — wrong with The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, neither is there anything all that right about it.
As the title suggests, this movie is pretty much a teenage knock-off of Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood — something that I presume extends to the source novel by Ann Brashares, who has created a kind of cottage industry out of the concept, spawning two sequels books. (One of the girls even has a grandmother named “Yia-Yia.”)
In other words, if Ya-Ya Sisterhood had been created with a 12-to-18-year-old audience in mind, this film is exactly what you would expect it to be. It’s well-intentioned, competently assembled and — like the titular transient trousers — probably a perfect fit for much of its intended viewership. Basically, the movie’s somewhere in between an Afternoon Special TV show and a teen-centric Harlequin Romance novel. That’s not surprising, if you’ve seen the trailer.
What is surprising is the warm critical reception of many reviewers, who seem to have seen a much deeper movie than I did. I will allow that Traveling Pants is less flawed than its uneven adult counterpart, Ya-Ya Sisterhood, but it pays the price of being far more predictable and bland in the bargain.
Even allowing for the sliding scale needed to evaluate a movie like this, Traveling Pants is pretty toothless stuff. The premise is nothing more than a device to link the movie’s four stories together. There are four 17-year-old girls: cynical Tibby (21-year-old Amber Tamblyn), introverted Lena (24-year-old Alexis Bledel), full-figured, ethnic Carmen (21-year-old America Ferrera), go-getter athletic Bridget (played by — gasp! — an actual 17-year-old, newcomer Blake Lively). They’ve been together since before childhood (their pregnant mothers belonging to the same yoga class, you see) and are spending their summer apart for the first time.
Lena is off to visit her grandparents in Greece. Carmen is going to stay with her father in South Carolina. Bridget is heading for a soccer camp in Mexico. And poor Tibby is stuck at home, working at a discount store called Wallman that bears a startling, but “purely coincidental,” similarity to a better-known discount store with a similar name. Before going their separate ways, the girls come across a pair of jeans in a thrift shop — but these are no ordinary jeans. Amazingly, the pants fit all four girls as if they were tailored for each of them. (This would seem a lot more amazing if three of the four characters didn’t boast model-thin bodies. As it stands, the only truly startling fit is Carmen.)
The girls are so impressed, they become convinced the pants will bring good luck and cook up a secret society — a sisterhood of the jeans. They decide to share the pants over the summer, sending them to each other after wearing them for a week.
Of course, such an undertaking requires certain rules — the kind needed to offer up some slightly quirky movie fashion. The pants can be removed by the wearer, but the wearer must never let anyone else take the pants off of them. They must be sent to the next girl with a letter detailing what happened when the pants were worn. No nose-picking while wearing the jeans — which must never be washed. (By the end of the summer, one can only conclude that the jeans are apt to be a bit on the gamey side.)
The film then follows the girls’ various adventures, which rarely seem to have much connection to the jeans. In the first one, the pants get caught on a piece of metal when Lena falls into the sea, necessitating her rescue by hunky Greek college student/fisherman Kostas (newcomer Michael Rady), so the pants are actually a catalyst of sorts. But after that, little is really made of the jeans, and it’s easy to forget their supposed import as the film lurches from one life-lesson story to the other.
(A garment-based premise can sustain a film: Check out Julien Duvivier’s Tales of Manhattan, where the history of a tail-coat actually does connect a series of far more diverse stories.)
The stories themselves are at best variable, and they’re all predictable. Tibby comes off best, even though she’s saddled with a Lifetime “Disease of the Week” subplot involving a subordinate character who dutifully expires to prove the value of life. Carmen only slightly trails her. Lena’s story is pure romance-novel gush, and the less said about Bridget, the better.
The basic problem, though, is that the film is so obviously geared to manipulate the viewer that it’s hard not to feel a bit like one of Mr. Pavlov’s dogs. I knew what I was supposed to be feeling, but I almost never felt it, and that’s a pretty big shortcoming in a movie aimed squarely at the tear ducts. It doesn’t help that director Ken Kwapis approaches the story with overbearing sincerity (to the degree that I was hoping for a guest appearance by the orangutan from his earlier Dunston Checks In, just to liven things up). If you’re not in the demographic range, be wary. Rated PG for thematic elements, some sensuality and language.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke