DIVINE SECRETS OF THE YA-YA SISTERHOOD

written and directed by Callie Khouri with Ellen Burstyn, Sandra Bullock, Ashley Judd, and James Garner opens June 7

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Steel magnolias

Southern belles reveal grit and grievances.

DIVINE SECRETS OF THE YA-YA SISTERHOOD

written and directed by Callie Khouri with Ellen Burstyn, Sandra Bullock, Ashley Judd, and James Garner opens June 7 at Meridian, Neptune, Oak Tree, and others

HERE'S A MOVIE that opens noisily and never lowers its voice. All it takes is one offhand remark from successful N.Y.C. playwright Sidda (Sandra Bullock) to an interviewer about her Louisiana childhood to set off nuclear war, Southern style. There, in the pages of Time, she has called her larger-than-life drama momma "the most charming wounded person you could find."

Such disloyalty sends Vivi (Ellen Burstyn) into a histrionic fury: cutting Sidda out of family pictures, changing her will, and, when Sidda vainly tries to call her, wapping the phone on a countertop with the zeal of a poacher clubbing a baby seal.

Healing this rift will be an uphill job for the Ya-Ya Sisterhood (Fionnula Flanagan, Maggie Smith, and Shirley Knight), Vivi's tenacious friends of 60-some years. Actually, the women of this childhood secret society are more like the yadda yadda sisterhood—The Gang Who Couldn't Hush Up.

The success of Bainbridge Island-based writer/actress Rebecca Wells' 1996 novel came from book groups and ecstatic word of mouth. Obviously something about it struck a deep chord, whether it was the perceived charm of the eccentric Ya-Yas, the poignancy of an estranged mother and daughter, or the bourbon-and-gumbo-soaked Louisiana milieu.

In her directorial debut, Thelma & Louise screenwriter Callie Khouri has chosen to make everything about Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood bigger, busier, and more exhausting than in the source novel. With three time frames and three casts to keep straight (from 1939 to the present), calm and focus might have helped. Sandra Bullock supplies both in spades, but the three feisty present-day Ya-Yas have been pushed into caricature, and Burstyn has been galvanized into strip-mining the scenery.

KHOURI SUGGESTS that Vivi may have been a kid-belting bitch in her younger (Ashley Judd) days, but she's a beatific one now, so Burstyn sashays and radiates eerily, even when chucking glasses at poor James Garner, her loyal cipher of a husband. (Actually, Judd is pretty damned eerie, too, holding young Sidda as though they were posing for the old Breck magazine ads of the '30s and '40s.) We keep hearing about Vivi's magnetism, but we see an actress glowing like Chernobyl from sheer self-absorption—incinerating any chance of acting with her.

The crux of Sisterhood's drama is the urgency of the three Ya-Yas to fix things between Vivi and Sidda before Sidda cancels her wedding to Connor (Angus MacFadyen) for fear she'd be as emotionally crippling a mother as Vivi was. Unfortunately, however, instead of communicating the Ya-Yas' enduring support and compassion, Khouri opts for near farce. Sidda's retreat to a remote cabin to figure out why she "doesn't know how to love" becomes a Ya-Ya "intervention," complete with kidnapping and neat, nuggetlike flashbacks that "explain" how Vivi's past maternal behavior swung seamlessly from adoration to abuse.

Judd plays Vivi from 16 through her late 20s, the time when she loses a true love, marries on the rebound, and has four children in quick, Catholic succession. Internalized fury at her marriage, fueled by bourbon and a loss of faith, brings her to the breaking point—an event kept hidden from her children, who only feel abandoned and, in childlike fashion, guilty.

Given Khouri's pitch and pace, there's no chance for Sisterhood's first-rate actresses to create more than thumbnail sketches of their characters. Logic is the next victim. No playwright, even of the Ya-Ya clan, could leave as her play was about to open on Broadway. Why did Sidda's three brothers and sisters evaporate? How did Vivi get that rich? Why are all the men such wallpaper? And so on, and so on, and so on. Yadda yadda.

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