Yes, it’s uneven. Yes, it’s fragmented (although that doesn’t always work against it). Yes, it boasts a “conclusion” that would embarrass a first-year psych student. But Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood is also one of the more adventurous exercises in filmmaking to come out of mainstream Hollywood (it’s still essentially a Hollywood production, even if it was shot in Wilmington, N.C.) of late. And there’s a lot more going on in it than might be casually assumed — than, in fact, has been casually assumed by a lot of critics, who seem to be missing the point. It’s an odd film in many respects. I’ve seen it twice in its entirety and the last hour of it a third time. It’s good enough to warrant subsequent viewings, and indeed those return trips pay dividends. My initial response was that the first hour was splendidly done, but that it went downhill once the plot took over. It seemed a lot like a less-stilted, less-forced, more ambitious variation on Steel Magnolias — and blessedly without that film’s morbid obsession on reproduction. Like Steel Magnolias it worked better in terms of a character study than as a story. On a single viewing, the storyline seemed simplistic to the point of simple-mindedness. The war that erupts between successful playwright Siddalee Walker (Sandra Bullock) and her mother, Vivi (Ellen Burstyn), when Sidda talks a little too indiscreetly about her mother to a Time magazine reporter was a reasonable enough springboard for the story. And the decision of her mother’s “Ya-Ya Sisterhood” friends (Maggie Smith, Fionnula Flanagan, Shirley Knight) to kidnap Sidda and let her in on the truth about her mother was pleasantly outrageous. So far, so good. Then the mechanics of the plot seemed to get in the way, an impression that was completely reinforced by the fact that the “main” truth Sidda learned wasn’t all that overwhelming and its curative impact came across as way out of proportion. A second viewing didn’t entirely change my mind about the plot, but it very much did alter my perception of the film’s main “truth,” which is not the revelation presented to Sidda by the Ya-Ya’s, but a memory dredged up by Sidda herself after her long-suffering father (James Garner) off-handedly suggests she tries to concentrate on the good things in her relationship with her mother. Without giving away too much, I can at least say that the core to the film lies in the airplane ride brilliantly set to Mahalia Jackson’s “Walk in Jerusalem” and not in the supposed “secret” of Vivi’s past. “I owe my career to my mother. If I’d had an easy childhood, I wouldn’t have anything to write about,” Sidda had told the Time reporter early in the film. By the end of the film, Sidda and the viewer both understand that the first part of her statement is true, but the second part is only half true. Watching the last section of the film a third time confirmed my conviction that the problem is simply that the movie’s true divine secret tends to get buried by the lesser, but more directly presented, secret. Not having read the Rebecca Wells novels on which the film is based, I can’t readily address its faithfulness to the source material, but as intelligent, engaging, frequently hilarious and ultimately moving filmmaking, I’m hard-pressed to quibble with it on any serious level. First time director Callie Khouri, who wrote the screenplay for Thelma and Louise, evidences an instinctive flair for both making her film visually interesting and getting the best out of her astonishingly star-studded cast. From the film’s opening sequence — the splendid origins of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood — it’s obvious that Khouri is a real filmmaker and not just a writer sitting behind a movie camera. Her ability to shift back and forth between a variety of time periods is admirable — frequently clever, but never distractingly gimmicky. The performances are all flawless. Maggie Smith’s is the standout and ought to ensure her an Oscar, but there’s not a false note in the ensemble cast. And this includes the unsung heroes of the piece — the two major male roles played by James Garner and Scottish actor Angus MacFadyen. Both of whom manage to hold their own against a formidable array of actresses. The film’s soundtrack — masterminded by T Bone Burnett — perhaps tries a little too hard to strike the same kind of pay dirt found in the Coens’ O Brother, Where Art Thou?, but is generally successful and part and parcel of a movie that, unlike so many movies, is alive with the sheer joy of the possibilities of filmmaking.
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