DIVINE SECRETS OF THE YA-YA SISTERHOOD

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The “Steel Magnolia” crowd will probably eat up Callie Khouri’s adaptation of Rebecca Wells’ books about a close-knit group of four southern belles and the daughter of one of them (the most difficult and intractable), whom the other three instruct about her mother’s painful past: the disclosures are designed to heal a rift that exists between the two. Like “Magnolias,” “Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood” is a combination of sitcom and soap opera that preserves the worst features of each while adding nothing fresh to the mix; but undemanding viewers, especially those interested in an old-fashioned “women’s movie,” may be taken in by its mixture of mawkishness, phony feminine friendship and cartoonish slapstick. Not an instant of the picture rings true, though, and guys who accompany their wives or dates to it will probably be squirming uncomfortably in their seats while it unspools, particularly since all the male characters are portrayed as either uncomprehending dolts or amiable doormats for members of the fairer sex. Interested parties should probably take in “Ya-Ya” at a ladies’ matinee and spare their husbands and boyfriends the pain of enduring it.

As the picture opens, Sidda Lee Walker (Sandra Bullock), a successful Broadway playwright, errs in an interview by speaking too openly about her mom Vivi (Ellen Burstyn), an eccentric, alcoholic Louisiana matron who takes umbrage at her daughter’s revelations. The women comedically break off contact with one another, much to the distress of Vivi’s long-suffering husband Shep (James Garner) and Sidda’s live-in fiancĂ© Connor (Angus MacFadyen). Enter Vivi’s three friends since childhood–Teensy (Fionnula Flanagan), Necie (Shirley Knight) and Caro (Maggie Smith), along with her the members of the titular sisterhood–who effectively kidnap Sidda and drag her back home, where they slowly reveal to her the secrets of her mother’s tortured life, dramatized for us in a series of flashbacks featuring Ashley Judd as the younger Vivi. This process, needless to say, has its intended therapeutic effect–natural psychologists the ya-ya sisters seem to be–and by the close everybody’s just a-huggin’ and a-cryin’ and a-carryin’ on to beat the band.

In the course of it all Khouri proves that she’ll stoop to any method of manipulation to extract the requisite laughs and sniffles from her targeted audience. The characters are all colorful collections of tics rather than figures even remotely resembling human beings, and they all seem to have the perfect quip in each and every situation (although Shep’s often take the form of a mere shrug or a rolling of the eyes). Vivi is presented, in the suitably vivacious performances of both Burstyn and Judd (the pun is intended), as equal measures of vibrant dynamism, incorrigible independence (as when, even as a girl, she refuses to put up with racial bigotry) and deep sorrow at the losses she’s suffered; and the flustered, nervous Sidda provides ample scope for Bullock’s entire repertoire of stumbles and frazzled looks. As for the three other ya-ya gals, they’re all conveniently identified by some gimmick: Teensy is the rough-talking dame with a bright yellow convertible, and Caro a sharp-tongued harpy who touts a tank of oxygen along with her (Necie, on the other hand, is the pleasantly chubby Vivian Vance surrogate, and as such falls quickly into the shade). Garner brings his amiable sweetness to the role of Shep (though not much more–he’s really coasting here), and MacGadyen is so laid-back as Sidda’s incredibly understanding intended that one hopes he’s supposed to be perpetually sloshed.

In its own utterly meretricious way “Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood” is cleverly designed and realized: it carefully pushes all the right buttons at exactly the right moments, and has been put together with a high level of professional skill. But coming from the screenwriter of “Thelma and Louise,” and utilizing (or more honestly, abusing) the talents of such remarkable actresses as Burstyn, Judd and Smith (oh, for the days of “Requiem for a Dream,” “Ruby in Paradise” and “Gosford Park”), it seems a distinct step backward across the board.