Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood
Director: Callie Khouri. Cast: Sandra Bullock, Ellen Burstyn, Ashley Judd, Maggie Smith, Fionnula Flanagan, Shirley Knight, James Garner, Angus MacFadyen, Cherry Jones, Matthew Settle, Gina McKee, Jacqueline McKenzie, Katy Selverstone, Kiersten Warren, Caitlin Wachs, Mary Katherine Weiss, Alyssa May Gold, Nicki Tschudi. Screenplay: Mark Andrus and Callie Khouri (based on the novels Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and Little Altars Everywhere by Rebecca Wells).

Lovely & Amazing
Director: Nicole Holofcener. Cast: Catherine Keener, Emily Mortimer, Brenda Blethyn, Raven Goodwin, Jake Gyllenhaal, Clark Gregg, Dermot Mulroney, Aunjanue Ellis, James LeGros. Screenplay: Nicole Holofcener.

Let's not call them "chick flicks," but let's do admit that Callie Khouri's Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and Nicole Holofcener's Lovely & Amazing are in large part movies for, by, and about women. Lots and lots of XX chromosomes among the directors, writers, crew members, ensemble casts, and audiences for both of these films, though in many respects, Divine Secrets and Lovely & Amazing are more different than similar. Khouri's film has a "Multiplex or Bust" sign slung around every frame, with marquee talent, the brand-name of a bestselling novel, a mass-marketable soundtrack ranging from Bob Dylan to creole bluegrass to Lauryn Hill, and a tidy three-act structure of disruption, education, and reconciliation. Lovely & Amazing pursues an opposing structure of unhurried arbitrariness, taking its unglamorous cast through a simple (perhaps too simple) story structure that tends to play well only to arthouse audiences. Which is hardly to say that Lovely & Amazing is an art film, nor for that matter to allege that Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood is an easy recipe for profit: for every Steel Magnolias bonanza there have been scads of How to Make an American Quilts that never reach much of an audience until video.

It will be easy to digress from here, so suffice it to say that the opposed poetics, industrial contexts, and story structures of Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and Lovely & Amazing add up such that, while both films are targeted to a chiefly female audience, the former will be received as a "mainstream" entertainment and the latter as an "independent" film. Correlative to these tags, especially among critics and urbane audiences, will be the implication that Ya-Ya is pap while Lovely & Amazing really says something. And yet what strikes me after seeing both films in relatively short succession is how closely these films meet each other near the middle of the Art/Commerce axis—and I do mean in the middle. Both films, each in their own way, provide their viewers with a pleasing and competent surface embodiment of narrative pleasure. Whether an incredible amount of rich characterization or dramatic insight fuels this pleasure is, in both cases, less certain, and for me, a demand that is surprisingly easy to relinquish. That Divine Secrets and Lovely & Amazing can delight us with little more than the bare-bones spectacle of multiple women characters discussing things that matter to them is probably a sign of how absolutely parched we are, as a national audience, for female-centered cinema. Lacking any surfeit of challenging examples of this genre—and how did films relating to half of the world's population become a genre?—these reasonably engaging, mostly satisfying, almost wholly undemanding movies will have to do. But it would be wise, I think, to remember the terms proscribed around our enjoyment.

The spit polish that has been so liberally administered to Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood has the strange effect of clarifying the material. Garish to the point of vulgarity, overstated in its campy Southernness, histrionic in all the predictable directions, Ya-Ya at least marshals those qualities in a story that centers enthusiastically around vulgar, overstated, histrionic women who make campy fun of being predictable. The passel of actresses recruited to the project have enough craft to float this shamelessly broad parable of mother-daughter tension and reconciliation; Ellen Burstyn in particular, freed from having to pop barbiturates or wrestle with vomitous demon-children, has fun letting her hair down a little, so to speak. Burstyn has some nice, piquant scenes of marriage in the twilight years with James Garner, delivering the movie's most likable and quietly elegant performance as a longtime husband who knows he was never truly a paramour. And since, at least as relates to its central plot, Ya-Ya cheerleads for the pure life-living gusto of its gaudy heroines, some spirited overacting and slathery screenwriting is less a liability than a guilty pleasure the movie is wholly in on.

The whole thing goes down so smoothly, in fact—indeed, as if prodding or surprising the audience in any way were the height of faux pas—that even recounting the story seems redundant. There is certainly no reason why the dizzy harpies played by Maggie Smith (Gosford Park, Shirley Knight (As Good As It Gets), and Fionnula Flanagan (The Others) couldn't be combined into two characters, or even one. Sandra Bullock, despite nice chemistry with Angus MacFadyen as her boyfriend, is no one's actual idea of a Broadway playwright. And there will certainly be audiences of both genders who lament the film's tracking of familiar distaff melodramas: soul-crushing housewifery, tragic aviator boyfriends, laughter through tears. But say this for Khouri: she's gifted at pacing, scoring, and casting, especially in the areas where a little darkness seeps into the mix. Witness, then, a truly unnerving flashback cameo by the ever-formidable Cherry Jones as the mother of the Burstyn character, and another disquieting sequence featuring Ashley Judd (the younger incarnation of Burstyn's Vivian) alone in a hotel room, with no ambient sound, no tricks, and a surprisingly plausible atmosphere of internal decay. We never stay long, of course, in this nervy terrain, but Ya-Ya hits more than one note in an admittedly narrow, comfyish range.

While I feel some pressure to redeem Khouri's movie from the reflexive trashing many audiences are likely to give it, I feel a contrasting urge to temper some of the too-quick adulation that has been reserved for Nicole Holofcener's Lovely & Amazing, a film I enjoyed, but not necessarily for exemplary artistic merit. Holofcener's previous feature, 1996's Walking and Talking (what's with these titles?), is absolutely one of my most beloved pictures—not a masterpiece, maybe, but a small gem of characterization and simple, clear, ticklish storytelling that I can watch again and again. Lovely & Amazing feels simultaneously bigger and smaller. Holofcener's canvas has expanded to encompass four important female leads rather than two, this time of three different generations. But the tonal clarity and fluid ensemble acting that make Walking and Talking so priceless to me seem here to have diminished by a few degrees. Catherine Keener, the star of both films, seems transparently improvisational and not wholly comfortable for the first half of Lovely & Amazing, itching a little in her role as a bored mother and housewife who resents her family, her husband, and, one senses, her own lack of ambition. This listlessness keeps generating eccentric but short-lived hobbies like making doll-sized chairs out of twigs and hot glue, a sort of creative-productive tic that sparks some sharp confrontation scenes with both strangers and loved ones but also doesn't depart too much from territory we've seen in many other films.

Brenda Blethyn, as Keener's mother, isn't around for much of the film, cooped up in a hospital bed after her character's liposuction results in minor but unforeseen complications. Raven Goodwin, as Blethyn's adopted youngest daughter—an African-American pre-teen just beginning to absorb the implications of her skin color, her overweightness, and the fractiousness of her family—has an interesting role but is not quite a natural enough screen presence (it seems crass to pick on a pre-teen!) to convince in all of her scenes. By a long shot, the most intriguing character is Emily Mortimer's Elizabeth, an aspiring actress who seemingly can't fend off the self-fulfilling prophecy that sexualized scrutiny of her body will dictate her career fortunes as well as her romantic future. Her anxieties culminate in what is already the movie's most talked-about scene, when she asks a fatuous himbo actor (Dermot Mulroney) during a one-night stand to stare at her naked frame and pinpoint all of her flaws. But Mortimer, of all the actresses, is the most successful at sustaining and dispersing her character's unique energies through the quieter interludes and in-between scenes of Holofcener's narrative. She is wisely, hilariously low-key with James LeGros, in funny/scary scenes of Elizabeth projecting her own self-criticisms onto him as her baffled lover, asking fight-picking questions like the classic, "Why are you against me?"

Keener comparably comes alive in the film's last half-hour, when her character, out of desperation and the familiar acrid hostility, takes a job at a strip-mall photolab and unpredictably becomes involved with her teenage coworker (Jake Gyllenhaal, virtually typecast in this part). But well before this late-arriving plot wrinkle, amusing and well-played as it is, one has already detected that Lovely & Amazing is a little too desultory for its own good. Sometimes, as in Walking and Talking, a loose dramatic structure gives rise to keen, sidelong observations about quiet lives; at other times, as in Lovely & Amazing, it just gives rise to looseness and hit-and-miss characterization. It is worth noting in this regard that even as the women's personalities emerge more clearly as the plot unravels, none of the male characters have even a shade of the depth or charm of James Garner in Ya-Ya, to say nothing of Liev Schreiber, Kevin Corrigan, and Todd Field's exceptional roles and performances in Holofcener's earlier film. And it is worth noting, too, in grouping Ya-Ya with Lovely & Amazing that, while the first film reachest furthest when it cul-de-sacs away from its three-act narrative, the latter one functions best when it actually confers organization on its proudly free-associative plot construction. Proof that "mainstream" and "independent" films still have tricks to glean from each other, and that they don't always amount to so clear a distinction anyway. Grades: Ya-Ya: B–; Lovely: B–

Awards for Lovely & Amazing:
Independent Spirit Awards: Best Supporting Actress (Mortimer)

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