The spine cracks with effort every time I open it; dust clings stubbornly to the protective plastic. It’s an album full of memories from nearly a decade reviewing films as part of a fiercely loyal cabal—the Blah-Blah Critichood. I feel compelled to explore those memories now and then, and not just because such an exploration becomes a convenient meta-device for reviewing a film named after a scrapbook. No sir, mm-mmm, not at all.
Here now are the pages devoted to my viewing of Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. They’re fresh, not yellowed and worn like so many of the others, and I suspect they’ll remain that way. Something tells me I won’t be going out of my way to remember this experience in the years to come.
On this page, clippings from the press kit synopsis. They tell me that Divine Secrets is the story of Siddalee Walker (Sandra Bullock), a successful New York playwright recently profiled for Time magazine. The interview includes revelations about Siddalee’s mother Vivi (Ellen Burstyn), a blowsy, hard-drinking Southern belle who immediately disowns her daughter for her treachery. Enter the Ya-Ya Sisterhood—Vivi’s lifelong best friends Teensy (Fionnula Flanagan), Necie (Shirley Knight) and Caro (Maggie Smith)—who kidnap Siddalee for a family crisis intervention. By showing her snippets from the Ya-Yas’ scrapbook, they hope to give Siddalee a sense of who her mother really was as a younger woman (Ashley Judd) and who she came to be.
On the facing page, excerpts from the Rebecca Wells novel on which the film is based. They remind me how much Callie Khouri—the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Thelma & Louise, here making her directing debut—has opted to change from her source material. In the novel, the Ya-Yas don’t have to steal the scrapbook; Vivi voluntarily sends it to Siddalee for her edification in a grudging act of goodwill. The film removes that act merely to inflate the roles of the elder Ya-Yas and give Khouri an excuse to perpetuate the Fallacy of the Profane Granny—the misguided, Golden Girls-encouraged notion that senior citizens using salty dialogue or otherwise not acting their age is inherently hilarious. And why does Khouri dump Vivi’s critical incarceration as a teenager at a Catholic boarding school? Wells’ book wasn’t brilliant, but at least it built something that felt resonant and real. Which bring us to the next page …
Here, a collage of photos capturing random images from the film: A flashback to an idyllic summer day at the lake; youthful abandon as the Ya-Yas take a striptease joy ride on a hot summer night; a childhood trip to Atlanta for the premiere of Gone With the Wind that becomes a lesson in racism. And random images are all these moments remain—touchstones for those familiar with the source material that never become anything deeper or more significant on screen. When Khouri eventually trots out the story’s most crucial sequence—a traumatic night of parenting that drives Vivi over the edge—it plays almost as slapstick, because we’re denied the progression up to that moment. Nothing in Ya-Ya Sisterhood packs a wallop. It’s like watching a sitcom “clip show” when you’ve never seen a previous episode.
Finally, the page I’m saving for angry letters, especially from women. “You just don’t understand about mothers and daughters,” they’ll read. “You just didn’t get it.” And I’ll shake my head patiently while remembering my surprise at realizing Wells’ novel was anchored in a tough-minded, sentiment-free notion—that kids need to get the hell over their self-absorbed “issues” with their parents and see mothers and fathers as people. Khouri’s adaptation misses the point almost entirely, soaking the whole endeavor in forced whimsy, maudlin reconciliations and cutaways to exasperated reaction shots. When men grumble over being dragged to a “chick flick,” this is what they should be talking about—formulaic pandering that’s just as lazy in its construction as a dozen action blockbusters.
Now it’s time to close the book. There’s really not much to it, after all—just snippets that won’t mean much to anyone not already familiar with their context. When I’m ready for an actual story, I’ll look for some connective tissue. Clipping the photos with pinking shears doesn’t give them any more substance.