Ya-Ya Sisterhood


Gen X Review of Ya-Ya sisters

Some movies are so dreadful that they bear down on you like a freight train, steel wheels crushing your soul until you are a whimpering mass of submission.


Films like Joe Dirt are so awful that they force you to imagine a peaceful world without human life polluting the atmosphere -- a world of serene calm and kindness, Disneyland birds chirping happily as they glide to muzak Mozart. Movies of this type are brutally bad, “bug in your ice cream” bad, bad of an intensity that almost defies rationality, but at least they’re honest. They don’t pass themselves off as anything more than the steaming pile of worm dung that they are.

But there are other kinds of bad films, friends, equally insidious, every bit as nasty and -- somehow -- even more rotten at their core. These films lull you into believing they’re not going to suck. Ah, you say, a little Fried Green Tomatoes meets On Golden pond, well sure, sounds good. Don’t be deceived, neighbors! These movies are pure poison, like the trick that not only sucks your blood but leaves its head under your skin, where it continues to act with cruel intelligence.

Their badness spreads like scabies. Every time you scratch, you spread the disease, planting embryonic seeds all over your body until you are a virtual garden of ugly, crusty sores. These films are so subtly bad that you feel all order drain from the world as you try to understand why you’re suddenly so grouchy and angry at the world.

Enter Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, queen of skunks, gardener of nightcrawlers, venereal diseases and stale, petty melodrama.

Ya-Ya begins fine. A group of young girls crawl from a bedroom window and sneak into the nearby woods, where they light a fire and perform a kind of ritual. They swear an oath to one another, share a potion and dance under the open sky like true pagans. Although indistinguishable from one another, the girls are immensely likable and the mood is lush and mysterious.

The ritual is common childhood magic, evoking Indians, the Virgin Mary and the ancient spirits of the stones interchangeably, but these kids are fascinating with their faces lit up by the fire and the power of their own imaginations.

But this is merely a happy hallucination, the first in an endless stream of flashbacks, and the film never again touches this sacred ground of childhood, mystery or wonder.

Back in the present day, the Ya-Ya kicks into high realist mode by introducing Sidda (Sandra Bullock), a dark playwright. Sidda tells a columnist for Time that her mother was very difficult when she was growing up and that she is actually grateful for her bad childhood, since it gives her material to write about.

When the article is published Sidda’s mother, Vivi -- the eldest girl from the opening ceremony -- is understandably livid. All four girls have aged into full Southern belles, hard-drinking, hard smoking, full-figured clichés, and they commiserate with Vivi over her daughter’s remarks while tossing back Bloody Marys in her kitchenette. They convince Vivi to give Sidda a chance to explain herself.

After an explosive phone call, these golden girls decide to head to New York to kidnap Sidda and force her to listen to all their old Ya-Ya stories. It’s like a Clockwork Orange version of the worst family get together you can imagine and the incessant flashbacks certainly do not deconfuse the plot any. I believe 12 people play the Ya-Yas at different points of their lives and it’s difficult to follow who is who, though I defy anyone to care.

The pace is disjointed and the acting uneven. The film showcases some of Bullock’s very worst acting to date and there just isn’t much material for the elder Ya-Yas -- Ellen Burstyn, Fionnula Flanagan, Shirley Knight and Maggie Smith -- to work with, though they generally blow it when they get the chance. For a film supposedly about deep and tender bonds, this movie does everything it can to keep all emotions at the level of make-up, hair do and wardrobe.

The self importance of the characters seems totally unjustifiable given the fact that they’ve become just four charmless, alcoholic, crones. Dipping into flashback after flashback like a deep-sea diver in search of pearls reveals nothing more substantial than the usual laundry list of complaints: Lost love, abuse, tragic deaths, you know, what most of us call life. The tiresome, unpleasant details about these ordinary megalomaniacs is simply depressing and the film’s yo-yo use of flashback devices is a textbook example of how to make bad films even worse.

By the tenth hour of this unusually long and dreadfully obsessive film I was ready to scratch my eyes out, whispering, “Please, no more... flashbacks... I’ll tell you everything I know...” to myself softly.

-th-there must be reason, you say to yourself, it can’t all... be about... pill-popping... what about Vivi’s three missing children...? and-and-and how is it possible for Bullock to have been a teenager in the early 1960s...? w-where did Vivi get all t-that mmm-oney? why --

Hey, you say to yourself, what’s that rash forming on my arm...?

And that is the final secret of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.


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