Vodka and Sympathy

By Ann Hornaday
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, June 7, 2002

You can pretty much divide the world into two kinds of people: those who adored the novel "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood" and those who didn't.

It's only fair to announce that this critic fell into the latter camp. And to this sensibility, parts of the filmed adaptation came off just as self-consciously quirky as the book. But it's only fair to add that there is much in the movie to love, especially in some winning performances by an ensemble of fabulous actresses.

"Divine Secrets" tells the story of Siddalee Walker (Sandra Bullock), a successful New York playwright who, while giving an interview to Time magazine, allows as how she might not have had the most healthy of upbringings while growing up in Louisiana. This doesn't sit well at all with Sidda's mother, the narcissistic and high-strung Viviane Walker (Ellen Burstyn), who upon reading the article begins a full-blown Southern Gothic feud with her daughter, starting with angry phone calls and ending with an escalating battle of nasty Fed Ex packages.

To the rescue come the Ya-Yas, Vivi's best friends since childhood, who travel to New York, kidnap Sidda and drag her back to the bayou, where they will perform a booze-and-cigarette-fueled intervention to bring mother and daughter back together. Here, in the cluttered cabin where she spent most of her childhood, Sidda will learn the Divine Secrets of the title -- most of which have to do with her mother's traumatic childhood, tragic youth and troubled young adulthood.

Although "Divine Secrets" derives its title from Rebecca Wells's 1997 novel, much of its material comes from "Little Altars Everywhere," Wells's first book, which introduced readers to Sidda and her severely embattled family. The film, directed by screenwriter Callie Khouri, unfolds in a series of flashbacks in which we meet Vivi's freakish parents, the World War II pilot who was the love of her life, and finally the demons that drove her to despise her husband, abuse her children and finally collapse in a full-blown breakdown.

Ashley Judd plays the young Vivi in these sequences and delivers a performance that is by turns sexy and grim; when she plays at saving young Sidda (Allison Bertolino) during a fake-drowning game, she manages to be an object of both desire and terror. But although these episodes are vividly drawn, their cumulative effect is to give the movie a pasted-together quality, as if each scene were a notecard on which some emblematic emotion were written.

But if "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood" suffers from a ploddingly melodramatic structure, it comes to life in the performances: Judd and Burstyn share an uncanny physical resemblance, making it easy to accept them as the same confounding but never unlovable woman. Splendid too are the women playing the merry band of elderly Ya-Yas: Fionnula Flanagan, Shirley Knight and especially Maggie Smith, who as the oxygen-tank-toting Caro gets to utter the film's most mordantly funny lines. ("I hope it's not a real emergency, I only brought one bottle of vodka," she says early in the first of many hilarious references to the Ya-Yas' beloved vices.) Even Bullock, whose performances have been characterized more by charm and instinct than by pure acting talent, delivers an unexpectedly deep performance as a daughter who bears more of a resemblance to her mom than she might comfortably admit.

The tart, often jauntily profane dialogue and sharp interactions of the present-day relationships give "Divine Secrets" its occasional zip; when Khouri takes us back in time, especially to the Ya-Yas' early childhood, the movie flags. A more experienced director might have been able to relate this sprawling tale more subtly and with less visible labor. Also problematic is the film's patronizing depiction of African Americans, who are portrayed either as shamanistic seers ("I done heard that hoot owl last night"), beneficiaries of white virtue or conveniently available caretakers for Sidda and her siblings when Vivi goes AWOL.

As uneven as "Divine Secrets" is, at a recent screening Ya-Ya fans seemed to relish the way Smith, Burstyn, Bullock and their gifted co-stars brought their cherished characters to life. That half of the world will no doubt smile while watching the Ya-Yas don their proto-feminist crowns, Vivi pray to the Virgin Mary while surrounded by sparklers, and Sidda engage in her own ritual to become a Ya-Ya. Readers who are already gagging may want to start inventing excuses now as to why they'll have to sit this one out.

DIVINE SECRETS OF THE YA-YA SISTERHOOD (PG-13, 112 minutes) ¿ Contains mature themes, language and brief sensuality. At area theaters.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company