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Fundamentally Challenged

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 26, 1999

  Movie Critic

The Other Sister
Diane Keaton, left, plays overprotective mother to Juliette Lewis in "The Other Sister." (Touchstone)

Garry Marshall
Juliette Lewis;
Diane Keaton;
Giovanni Rabisi;
Tom Skerritt;
Hector Elizondo
Running Time:
2 hours, 11 minutes
Contains sexual situations and obscenity
In "The Other Sister," Juliette Lewis plays Carla, a mentally retarded girl, who is dispatched to private boarding school for years of special education. When Carla returns at the age of 24, confident, well-adjusted and ready to function as an adult, her controlling mother, Elizabeth (Diane Keaton), cannot accept Carla's newfound independence.

It's time for Elizabeth – whom the movie one-dimensionally characterizes as a Republican given to ornate, yet austere decorating schemes and ribbon-cutting ceremonies – to understand that people like Carla have their own needs.

For the dry-ice matriarch, this also means accepting Carla's desire to start up a romantic relationship with Danny (Giovanni Ribisi) and move in with him.

I don't doubt that Touchstone Pictures' intentions were positive – in that lovin' corporate way-when they green-lighted this movie. But in their smug hands, the moral signpost points in roughly the same direction as a wildlife special.

The Carlas of the world, they are saying, like the white-bearded gnus of the African veldt or the dugongs of the Indian Ocean, need their space, too. Let's share the dignity!

In the context of the movie's klutzy seriousness, everything is reduced to a transparent formula. And everyone plays their schematic part.

As Carla, Lewis is clearly pulling out the stops for a performance that the Gene Shalits of the world are supposed to trumpet from their towers of boosterism. As her beau, who has mental issues of his own, Ribisi creates an adorable adolescent who loves marching band music and talks an amusingly see-through babe-magnet game. But they're performing seals – turning aerial somersaults for our self-congratulatory delectation.

Carla's father (Tom Skerritt) has a drinking problem that has something to do with Elizabeth's sending the girl away in the first place. He spends the rest of the movie hovering like a moth around his wife's cold-burning light, and pointing out that many books are advocating independent lifestyles for disabled people.

You'd drink and pontificate, too, if you were married to Diane Keaton's conception of Carla's "Mommie Dearest" mother. Imagine Annie Hall borrowing from Joan Crawford, Martha Stewart and Phyllis Schlafly, as she hisses things like: "We can't discuss this right now!" Come to think of it, pour me that highball.

It doesn't help matters that the director is Garry Marshall, the pied piper of telegenic kitsch. When Carla and Danny decide it's time to try lovemaking, for instance, they pull out "The New Joy of Sex" and study pages like students cramming for a midterm.

The humor works beautifully until Marshall decides to beat the comedy over the head and drum us, once again, with this relentless message: "Mentally challenged people in love say the darndest things!"

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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