It's hard to review a phenomenon. When Rebecca Wells' novel Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood was first published in 1996, it had to make its own way in the world. Critics ignored it, and so did Oprah, strangely enough. But mothers and daughters across this great country of ours would not be denied, clasping the book to their bosoms while shouting "Ya-Ya" in sympathy with its eponymous characters, a quartet of Southern belles the likes of which haven't been seen since those Steel Magnolias had Fried Green Tomatoes while watching "Designing Women." Not having read Wells' novel, I'm not exactly sure what a Ya-Ya is, but it seems to have something to do with smoking and drinking and cussing and being there for your friends. Oh, and wearing clothes that make the Golden Girls look like the Bowery Boys.
As Vivi, a woman who's both endured and caused a lot of pain, Ellen Burstyn is a vision in draped silk, the colors so harmoniously coordinated that it's hard to tell where the clothes end and Vivi begins. Played by Ashley Judd in her younger years, Vivi is a veritable force of nature, and she has this way of sweeping her friends and family into her tragedies. When the movie opens, her successful playwright/daughter Sidda (Sandra Bullock) has just given a tell-all interview to a reporter from Time in which she details what it was like to grow up inside a tornado. This causes the tornado in question to upgrade from an F4 to an F5, slamming the phone against the table and writing Sidda out of her will. Lest mother and daughter never reconcile, the Ya-Ya sisterhood intervenes, kidnapping Sidda and force-feeding her secrets about her mother's past.
I regret to say that two of the sisters, Shirley Knight's Necie and Fionnula Flanagan's Teensy, fail to leave much of an impression. Only Maggie Smith, hauling an oxygen machine behind her, gets off any good lines. Why the filmmakers had to go all the way to Ireland and England to find actresses who can't pull off a decent Southern accent is beyond me; we have plenty of actresses who can't do it right here in this country. Luckily, none of this matters much as the movie zeroes in on the relationship between Vivi and Sidda, which, if not for Burstyn and Bullock, would seem like so many other mother-daughter relationships we've seen ' in Terms of Endearment, for example. Sidda has to forgive Vivi in order to get on with her life. Vivi has to forgive herself. So out comes the dusty scrapbook, with its faded photos and dried corsages.
Director Callie Khouri, who wrote the screenplay for Thelma and Louise, may once have had some grit in her, but it seems to have turned into chiffon. Divine Secrets does venture into rather dark territory ' scenes where Judd, drawing on all those women-in-peril movies, projects both strength and weakness. But there's never much doubt that Vivi will survive her nervous breakdown or that she will make amends with her daughter and husband. (James Garner underplays beautifully, as usual.) Still, the moments themselves are genuinely heartfelt, thanks in large part to Burstyn, who has the difficult task of playing a woman who's almost absurdly tragic. That Burstyn does this with grace and aplomb suggests that not even a trite-and-true script can keep a good actress down. Ya-Ya!