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'Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood'

Mother-daughter drama almost the real thing

Friday, June 07, 2002

By Barbara Vancheri Post-Gazette Staff Writer

"Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood" has what I call a couple of Movie Moments. In other words, events not usually found in nature.

"Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood"

RATING: PG-13 for mature thematic elements, language and brief sensuality

STARRING: Ellen Burstyn, Sandra Bullock, Ashley Judd

DIRECTOR: Callie Khouri

WEB SITE: yayasisterhood.com



To wit: A woman, swathed in fabric, stands in a circle of sizzling sparklers and sends a prayer -- out loud -- to the heavens. We also get the appearance of a Cajun-spiced band at a birthday party, and a ritual involving fussy headdresses and sealing the bonds of friendship with droplets of blood.

Welcome to "Ya-Ya" land, where roles are cast in triplicate and high drama reigns. The movie stars Sandra Bullock as Sidda Lee Walker, a prominent New York playwright -- important enough for a Time magazine profile -- who has never forgotten or forgiven her Louisiana roots. Or, to be specific, her mother.

When her mother, Vivi (Ellen Burstyn), thinks Time paints her in a most unflattering way, she declares war on Sidda. As Tony Soprano once said of his mother, Sidda is dead to her. This causes much gnashing of teeth, banging of phone receivers on tables, and exchanges through the mail of destroyed photos and other precious materials.

Caught in the crossfire of this battle royale are Vivi's unassuming husband (James Garner), Sidda's fiance (Angus Macfadyen) and the other members of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. That would be Teensy (Fionnula Flanagan), who drives a butter yellow Rolls Royce Corniche; Caro (Maggie Smith), who travels with a portable oxygen tank; and Necie (Shirley Knight), the quiet one.

The Ya-Ya Sisters have been friends since childhood, and they've documented their lives in a fat scrapbook that holds the secrets of the sisterhood. When the wound between Sidda and her mother seems like it will never heal, Vivi's longtime friends take matters into their own hands and essentially kidnap the playwright and ship her south.

Then, it's up to Sidda to figure out why her mother is the way she is -- and what was the truth behind a long-ago family secret. But too many other questions seem left unanswered. Early in the movie, for instance, it's evident that Sidda has siblings. And they would have gone ... where?

I saw the movie before reading the Rebecca Wells book of the same title (the screenplay also draws from her companion novel, "Little Altars Everywhere") and felt like I was missing something. The translation from page to screen is too truncated and jumpy. Transitions from the late 1930s and early '40s to the 1960s and 1990s aren't as smooth as they should be, and the result is the movie equivalent of driving a car over a series of speed bumps.

Sidda's dad, Shep, is portrayed as a near-saint, and Garner does the long-suffering, supportive act better than almost anyone. But where was Shep years ago, when his wife was being pulled under by the riptide of Louisiana life?

The older women, especially Burstyn, Flanagan (unshackled from her dour housekeeper in "The Others") and mistress of the one-liners Smith, are vibrantly played. Ashley Judd is Vivi as a young wife and mother, and she is best when Vivi is turning heads and teaching her daughter a lesson about courage. That scene has been changed from the book, and it's absolutely for the better.

If you're looking for a pure sugar high of a movie, be advised that this has darker strains than the TV commercials could indicate. It does, however, feature a marvelous, mood-setting soundtrack produced by T Bone Burnett and with cuts from Bob Dylan, Lauryn Hill, Jimmy Reed, Macy Gray, Mahalia Jackson, Tony Bennett and Ray Charles.

The movie has a good chick-flick pedigree, with Callie Khouri (Academy Award-winning writer of "Thelma & Louise") as director. But in the end, like a bowl of Jell-O popped into the fridge when the power's out, it never quite congeals.

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