Manipulative mishmash

'Ya-Ya Sisterhood' full of cardboard characters, Southern stereotypes

"Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood" is "An All Girl Production," according to the credits, and that's not too much of a stretch.

The cast is a Who's Who of female stars, from young actresses like Sandra Bullock and Ashley Judd to veterans like Ellen Burstyn, Maggie Smith, Shirley Knight, and Fionnula Flanagan. Most of the producers are women, too, as is the director and screenwriter: Callie Khouri, who brought woman-centered cinema to new levels of acclaim when she wrote "Thelma and Louise," which earned her an Oscar in 1991.

So what went wrong? Khouri's new picture takes all this talent and turns it into the kind of manipulative mush that Hollywood used to market under the condescending label "woman's picture" years ago. Full of cardboard characters and logic-defying leaps between farce and melodrama, it's rarely effective on its own sentimental terms.

If you can convince yourself that Judd and Burstyn look enough like each other to play the same character at different stages in life, you might buy into the movie as a freewheeling fantasy. Otherwise, save your ticket money.

Burstyn plays a Louisiana mother who flies into a tizzy when her daughter, a New York playwright, makes unkind remarks about her in a magazine interview.

Alarmed by her plight, her kooky old friends – the sisterhood of the title – kidnap the erring offspring, convinced she'll change her ungrateful tune if they make her realize how many challenges her mom faced during her own salad days. Flashbacks follow, depicting childish mischief and girlish romance along with harrowing glimpses at alcoholism, illness, and grief.

It sounds like something for everyone, and that's what the movie could have offered if Khouri focused less on the short-term effect of every brief scene and more on the overarching logic of the story as a whole.

Another problem is her stereotyped portrait of Southern life. You don't have to be a stickler for realism to find the movie's atmosphere thin and artificial. And not every Southern woman has a name like Sidda, Vivi, Teensy, Buggy, Caro, or Necie – just check a phone book! The cast's more gifted members, including Burstyn and James Garner as her aging husband, get through the story with most of their dignity intact.

The others are less fortunate. Khouri may have hoped for a funny-sad romp in the vein of "Steel Magnolias" or "How to Make an American Quilt," which weren't great films but helped compensate for Hollywood's longtime bias in favor of male moviegoers. What she ended up with is an uneven mishmash that most viewers will forget the second it's over. Where are Thelma and Louise now that we need them?

• Rated PG-13; contains vulgar language and scenes of illness, alcoholism, and child abuse.

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