Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood

As Sidda Lee Walker (Sandra Bullock) attains fame as a Broadway playwright, she once again grapples with the war that's been waging since her childhood with her melodramatic mother Vivi (Ellen Burstyn, "Requiem for a Dream"). When their standoff becomes so severe that it threatens Vivi's attendance at her daughter's wedding, Vivi's childhood friends Caro (Maggie Smith, "Gosford Park), Teensy (Fionnula Flanagan, "The Others") and Necie (Shirley Knight, "The Salton Sea") arrive to kidnap Sidda, bring her back to Louisiana and indoctrinate her into the "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.").

Laura's Review: C-

The latest in a line of chicken-fried chick flicks ("Steel Magnolias," "Fried Green Tomatoes," "Terms of Endearment," Hope Floats"), "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood" is a whole lotta ya-ya indeed. Academy Award winning screenwriter Callie Khouri ("Thelma and Louise"), making her directorial debut here as well, throws the baby out with the bath water adapting the Rebecca Wells novel.

While the Eastern version of the female ensemble film is usually college or career oriented ("The Group," "The Valley of the Dolls,"), its Southern counterpart is more small town home bound. Sidda awakens from her drugged state to find herself imprisoned at the Ya-Ya's lakeside camp, where the aggressively alcoholic Caro, matter-of-factly drinking Teensy and retiring recoveree Necie will attempt to introduce Sidda to her 'real' mother through Vivi's ornately adorned scrapbook. A series of flashbacks take us back two generations, to show Vivi as the Ya-Ya leader and civil rights activist as a child (Caitlin Wachs) and as a heartbroken war widow, then abusive alcoholic mother (Ashley Judd). Meanwhile Sidda's fiance Connor (Angus Macfadyen, "Braveheart") allows his future female 'in-laws' to run the show until his relationship is in jeopardy while ever-suffering dad (James Garner) offers wise words to his daughter and lovingly endures his drama queen wife. It will be no surprise to anyone that the film ends with a teary mother-daughter reunion.

The problem with "Divine Secrets" is that not only is its 'revelation' no surprise, but it does nothing to explain Vivi's character, which essentially is the whole point of the movie. Vivi is a fine young woman dealt a crushing disappointment. However she acts atrociously towards her family even before the supposedly secret events. Sidda's young siblings, who suffer abuse at the hands of their mother, are apparently only good enough for flashbacks. Their complete lack of mention in the present is as baffling as their father's presence. The man who shuts his wife out of his bedroom only to admire her pirouetting about the yard at night seems to have waited some forty-odd years for a crumb of recognition.

At least "Divine Secrets" features some fine older actresses to keep us entertained. While Ellen Burstyn is saddled with a nonsensical character, the actress is so talented she makes her watchable. Maggie Smith and Fionnula Flanagan really work the joint, though. Smith does a sotted Southern spin on her "Gosford Park" dame, this time dragging around an oxygen tank. Flanagan is a tough old bird, who shows some real steel using her pale yellow Rolls as a roadblock to the meddling Vivi. Shirley Knight gets the mousier gal to play, and fades into the background.

The film can't be faulted for its multi-period look, carefully pulled together by production designer David J. Bomba ("Original Sin") and costume designer Gary Jones ("Heartbreakers"). Director of photography John Bailey ("The Anniversary Party") gives the proceedings a soft glow.

But by the time the whole entourage celebrate Vivi's sixtieth, line dancing to the raucous Southern sounds of T. Bone Burnett, I was ready to retch if fed one more Ya.