They talk, they laugh, they gripe and grouse, they accuse, they apologize, they wisecrack and mix up a fresh batch of Bloody Marys. Then they talk some more. A lot more.
The chummy refrain of the women of "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood" is those two nonsense syllables, "ya-ya," but a more suitable substitute might be "yadda, yadda, yadda."
They go on endlessly, often about nothing of interest to anyone outside their own circle and often in such affected, stagy manner that it cheapens the impact of the film's more subtle and sincere moments.
As an emotionally maimed playwright coming to terms with her nutty mother, Sandra Bullock stands out with the one consistently authentic performance among an ensemble of exceptional actresses. Ashley Judd runs a decent second as the young incarnation of the mother, played in old age by Ellen Burstyn.
Unfortunately, the contemporary "Ya-Ya Sisterhood" -- Burstyn, Maggie Smith, Fionnula Flanagan and Shirley Knight -- tend toward caricatures of quirky, scrappy, boozy Southern dames, their banter sometimes amusing, more frequently grating.
The movie marks the directorial debut of Callie Khouri, whose screenwriting credits include her Oscar-winning script for "Thelma & Louise." Khouri wrote the screenplay herself from Rebecca Wells' novels "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood" and "Little Altars Everywhere."
As a writer, Khouri knows how to craft believably contentious women and fire off witty one-liners.
The film opens with a well-staged introduction to the origin of the "Ya-Ya Sisterhood," four young girls in the 1930s who swear a blood oath of lifelong devotion to one another.
"Many, many moons later," a mother-daughter rift develops as New York City playwright Sidda Lee Walker (Bullock) lets slip some loose words about her unhappy childhood in Louisiana during a Time magazine interview.
Her mother, Vivi (Burstyn), founder of the Ya-Yas, has a conniption when the magazine hits the stands. She and Sidda embark on comic acts of postal exorcism, Vivi sending Sidda family photos with her daughter cut out of them, Sidda returning the favor by mailing Mom an invitation to her upcoming wedding with the time and place blacked out.
It seems like the sort of estrangement that would blow over in a week or two. But Vivi's Ya-Ya buddies -- Caro (Smith), Teensy (Flanagan) and Necie (Knight) -- intervene, abducting Sidda and hauling her back home to indoctrinate her on the hard knocks that made Vivi such a tempestuous, occasionally unfit mother. What follows is a stream of flashbacks to the Ya-Yas' girlhoods, and the romantic tragedy and general life disheartenment experienced by young Vivi (Judd).
The movie plays out predictably, with mawkish sentiment, though there are some truly touching, understated moments, notably between Sidda and her long-suffering father (James Garner, who manages great warmth and humor in a largely stoic role).
Off-screen, the film's real star is music producer T Bone Burnett, who follows up his brilliant soundtrack to "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" with a fresh, far-reaching collection of songs beautifully integrated into the story. Among the highlights: new tunes by Bob Dylan and Lauryn Hill; Macy Gray's rendition of Billie Holiday's first-ever recording, "Your Mother's Son-in-Law"; and a new arrangement of Richard and Linda Thompson's "Dimming of the Day."
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