'Ya-Ya Sisterhood': A Yakety-Yak Attack

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 7, 2002

I FEEL FOR poor James Garner, who hovers around the background of "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood" like a eunuch in a harem. It's not because the men are portrayed so badly in this Dixiefied tale of estrogen empowerment -- believe me, the women fare much worse -- but because he looks so darned embarrassed to have been cast in screenwriter Callie Khouri's directorial debut.

And I can't say that I blame him.

Playing henpecked husband Shep to an overripe Ellen Burstyn's high-strung housewife Vivi Walker, Garner isn't given much to do besides roll his eyes patronizingly at the batty behavior of his volatile spouse and her three lifelong best friends, Teensy (Fionnula Flanagan), Necie (Shirley Knight) and Caro (Maggie Smith). Together, the quartet make up the titular Ya-Yas, a long-dormant secret society dreamed up by candlelight and under the influence, no doubt, of too many pubescent hormones one night long ago when the four gray-haired matrons were girls.

Early on in the film, disaster strikes. To wit: Vivi blows a gasket after successful New York playwright daughter Siddalee (Sandra Bullock) inadvertently bad-mouths her to a Time magazine reporter, and then Siddalee retaliates for her mother's anger by disinviting Vivi to her upcoming wedding. That's when the semi-retired Ya-Yas regroup sans Vivi, flying from Louisiana to Manhattan to kidnap Sidda (as she is known in the land of people named Buggy and Willetta) and spirit her away to their hideout. There, unbeknown to Vivi, the trio hopes to defuse Sidda's resentment, using only a dog-eared scrapbook of yellowing photographs of the Ya-Yas as a key to unlock the hidden demons of the past.

Caution: You are now entering Flashback City.

The film at this point hyperspaces clumsily in and out of the time stream, jumping from the Ya-Yas' pre- to post-adolescence, with pit stops made at other ages along the way. It's all part of Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail's -- excuse me, Teensy, Necie and Caro's -- fiendish plan to explain away Vivi's abusive past by parceling it out to Sidda in enough five-minute doses to make it palatable -- not to mention a feature-length movie.

Despite repeated references to a dark secret on the order of "You mean you haven't told her about it yet?," the audience is made to keep waiting for a closure that never comes, to expect a "Prince of Tides" moment that ultimately is no more than a washout.

Mostly, this is because the movie steals its own thunder. As the young adult (and, earlier, teenage) Vivi, Ashley Judd acts more and more like Bette Davis in full freak-out mode as she ages. By the time whatever she did to Sidda is spelled out in no uncertain terms, it is a kind of anticlimax. So Vivi is a loose cannon? Tell me something I don't know.

Although I haven't read the best-selling book on which "Ya-Ya" is based, by nearly all accounts it is a good and satisfying yarn, with a strong message of mother-daughter (and, in general, female) bonding. What is perhaps most disappointing about this ham-handed film, though, particularly since it was directed by the screenwriter of the righteously raging "Thelma and Louise," is its crypto-misogyny.

It thinks its message is feminist, but with its cast of uncommunicative, annoyingly ineffectual, southern-fried biddies, what it really ends up saying is "Women: Can't live with 'em, can't shoot 'em."

DIVINE SECRETS OF THE YA-YA SISTERHOOD (PG-13, 117 minutes) -- Contains unpleasant language and discreet and very brief toplessness. Area theaters.

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