'Ya-Ya'? Nah, nah!
“I owe all my creativity to her,” playwright Siddalee Walker (Sandra Bullock) tells a Time magazine interviewer about her mother, Vivi (Ellen Burstyn). “If I’d had an easy childhood I’d have had nothing to write about.”
The publication of the article, which goes into more detail about Mommie Dearest, triggers a family feud that leads to an intervention by Vivi’s three oldest friends, who kidnap Siddalee and introduce her to the Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.
Adapted by Mark Andrus from two novels by Rebecca Wells, the script could be torn to shreds for making very little sense; but being a chick flick (and marking the directorial debut of Callie Khouri, writer of the quintessential chick flick Thelma & Louise) it’s meant to be loved for its emotional truth, not its internal or external logic.
Andrus follows the formula that dictates that a story must have conflict that is resolved in the end. The conflict in this case is as contrived as the resolution is inevitable, but the script is good-humored and hits the required notes to make it a crowd-pleaser.
Perhaps the most believable aspect is Siddalee’s fear of marriage, fear that she will be as “terrible” a person as her mother was. Mr. Perfect, Connor McGill (Angus Mac Fadyen), has been after her for years to name a date and she finally gives in before the trouble starts. Now she’s rethinking yet again.
The women who drag Siddalee home to Louisiana on “a Ya-Ya mission of mercy” are Caro (Maggie Smith), Necie (Shirley Knight), and Teensy (Fionnula Flanagan). They and Vivi have been blood sisters since they were children and had such adventures as going to Atlanta for the premiere of Gone with the Wind.
Flashbacks to their girlhood show that Vivi had a worse mother (Cherry Jones) than she would become. Young Vivi grows up to become Ashley Judd and is engaged to Teensy’s brother, who disappears during the war. She marries Shep, who will become James Garner when she becomes Burstyn. He knows she’s not enthusiastic about him. “When I said ‘for better or worse,’” he recalls later, “I knew it was a coin toss.”
Raising three children is a strain on Vivi, yet most of the childhood flashbacks show a very loving relationship between her and Siddalee. One pair of poopy jammies too many starts a chain of events that ends in a nervous breakdown, yet we’re supposed to believe her children were never told why she was gone for several months. Nor were they told about the fiancé she lost in the war. These and other items that should have been dinner-table conversation are the “secrets” of the title that the women share with Siddalee in an effort to heal the breach between her and her mother.
Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood is inferior to its models, The Joy Luck Club and How to Make an American Quilt. The women are too caricatured for the actresses to make them believable for more than fleeting moments, but Smith shows she can get laughs with a drawl as readily as with her native accent.
Several unnecessary scenes appear to have been tacked on to squeeze another song onto the soundtrack, which was produced and coordinated by T Bone Burnett. It fails to do for blues and swing what his O Brother, Where Art Thou? did for bluegrass.
Perhaps it was the Divine in the title that led Bette Midler to become involved as an executive producer, but she’s rarely been known for her taste in scripts.