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Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood (Callie Khouri) 2002
The sheer ineptitude that scribe Callie Khouri exhibits in Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, her first attempt as director, suggests that much of the astute feminist rage of Thelma & Louise, for which she wrote a screenwriting Oscar, must have come from director Ridley Scott, and that’s disappointing. Thelma & Louise was a well-placed loogie in the square-chinned face of the male-dominated action genre, and seeing Khouri receive laurels for her script was immensely gratifying. To think that most of the insights that dotted the desert landscapes of that film might not have come from a woman’s mind is disheartening, if only because it seems now that men have cornered the Hollywood market on creating intelligent chick flicks too.
There’s very little rage to be found in Divine, and that’s probably the film’s greatest weakness. Based on what’s apparently a wildly popular novel, the film focuses, too intently, on an ailing relationship between an alcoholic mother (played mainly by Ellen Burstyn and Ashley Judd as the film flip-flops through time) and her estranged daughter (Sandra Bullock) in the aftermath of a damaging Time magazine article’s publication. There seems to be a rich, arcane bond between the mother and her three eccentric friends, who form a secret society that practices rituals that strongly resemble the Tribal Council from TV’s Survivor, but the script never really lets these, or any other subsidiary characters develop beyond a series of lame wisecracks, so we’re left focusing on the relationship between the mother and daughter, which disappoints since it hinges on a Big Secret that seems so incredibly lame in retrospect that you have to wonder what the fuss was. The movie’s structure is built so that you wait in suspense for the other shoe to drop, but even when it does, you can’t help but think there should be more to it all. Festering emotions are hinted at throughout, but on the few occasions when they boil over and Southern gentility subsides, the ire is muted by unnecessary and unwelcome humor. Racism, alcoholism, wartime death, and mental illness become setups for crude punch lines.
Everything about Divine reeks because of a haphazard hope that people won’t question what they’re seeing. Though the present-day sequences seem to be set in 2002, the characters attend a 1939 premiere of Gone With the Wind, suggesting the Ashley Judd is playing a woman in her 50’s, even if she looks 30. The movie is shot in ‘scope for no apparent reason, and acres of screen space are utterly wasted by an endless procession of indiscriminate close-ups. Certainly, the cast is as strong this time as it was in Thelma & Louise, but they’re given so little to do that they have no real impact. The script is filled with obvious platitudes (“The road to hell is paved with good intentions,” and “It’s never too late…,” are delivered back-to-back) that sink any goodwill that the actors might momentarily drudge up. I’ve seen enough of these weepy soap operas to know the good from the bad, and Divine is far from heavenly. Even among the sub-genre of Southern chick flicks, it can’t hold a candle to Fried Green Tomatoes, Steel Magnolias, or Judd’s own Ruby in Paradise. The film suggests the source material might have been tougher where this remains flaccid, but it certainly doesn’t inspire me to pick up the book and find out.