Wednesday, July 1, 2009

My Sister's Keeper

directed by Nick Cassavetes
written by Jeremy Leven (adapted from the novel by Jodi Picoult)
starring: Cameron Diaz, Abigail Breslin, Alec Baldwin, Jason Patric, Sofia Vassilieva and Evan Ellingson

I cried during Silkwood when the soft sound of Meryl Streep's voice singing "Amazing Grace" is placed against the scene of her character's eventual demise, as a tearful Cher sits in the window of a diner. I cried during Sarah Polley's haunting monologue at the end of The Sweet Hereafter. I cried during Terms of Endearment when Debra Winger said goodbye to her sons because she was dying of (wait for it) cancer. I preface my review of My Sister's Keeper with all of this information to show that I have no problem with films designed (in one way or another) to evoke tears, nor do I have a problem with cancer as an agent for said device. I cried during My Sister's Keeper. But I didn't feel good about it. It felt cheap. The entire movie feels cheap, and manipulative. I'm not made of stone, but one of my friends who lost her father to leukemia less than a year ago leaned over to me and said "This shit is lame." So, there you have it. Surprise, surprise: The image of a girl with terminal cancer in a prom dress and a wig asking her father if she looks pretty is sad. But it's hardly more than that.

The film centers around the Fitzgerald family. Parents Brian and Sara (Jason Patric and Cameron Diaz) have devoted their lives to saving their daughter Kate (Sofia Vassilieva) who has leukemia and was not expected to live beyond five. She is now fifteen at the beginning of the film, thanks in huge part to the second daughter named Anna (Abigail Breslin) who they genetically engineered for spare parts. In the course of her young life, Anna has donated skin, bone marrow and blood to save her sister's life. Now Kate is in renal failure, and Anna is expected to donate a kidney. Tired of being an organ bank for her older sister, she hires a lawyer (Alec Baldwin) to sue her parents for medical emancipation, meaning that she would stay under their care, but it would be her decision whether she still wants to be operated on for the sake of saving her sister's life.

The premise itself sounds interesting enough, and I'm almost curious to read the book to see if the film is already behind an 8-ball from the start. The whole thing seems incredibly slapped together and unfocused. The film itself doesn't know what it's about. The film is told largely through flashbacks that I guess are meant to give us glimpses into the Fitzgerald's life. But they really don't put the lawsuit (which...isn't that meant to be the focus?) into any kind of perspective for the viewer. You know everything that's going to happen at least five minutes before it actually does. That's not a good thing.

I remember that Dakota Fanning got some flack after she dropped out of this film (she was the original choice to play Kate, along with her sister Elle Fanning, who was to play Anna). People said it was because she refused to shave her head for the role. Maybe that was only a half truth. Maybe she was unwilling to shave her head and put that much dedication into a project that, by all rights, was better off on Lifetime. I know that it's Breslin who has an Oscar nomination under her belt, but I think that with time, we'll find that it's Fanning who will emerge as the more interesting actresses with more longevity. This is due in part because of the roles she chooses to take and not take (save Push). She's more adventurous than Breslin, I think, who I'm worried about, especially after seeing this film. An early scene in the dining room when the family's talking about Anna's decision to sue sticks out like a sore thumb and an example of really labored thesp-ing where we catch all of the actors "acting" (especially Breslin). I've read review after review that tries to make apologies for Cameron Diaz's performance. I am not one in particular who likes to overlook the possibility that she's not a very good actress...some people with her staying power aren't. Granted, she suffers from an unlikable and underwritten character. That's fine. She's not the first person to encounter such a task. But look at the way Joan Allen tackles Terri Wolfmeyer in The Upside of Anger, or how Tilda Swinton tackles Karen Crowder in Michael Clayton. Those are two underwritten female characters, but those actress brought layers and notes to the table, fashioning fascinating character studies and the best female performances of their respective years. Cameron Diaz may simply be incapable.

I'm getting just a little bit frustrated with Nick Cassavetes. Everyone of his movies has just been so...deeply disappointing in one way or another. More baffling is people's reactions to his films. I'm talking about those people who loved The Notebook and insist it's a great film (an aside: those people should seriously watch Away from Her, which is what you would get if you performed reconstructive surgery on The Notebook and lipsuctioned out all the fat).

Apropos to nothing (like many of the plotpoints in this film, actually) the role of a brother (younger, or maybe older?) played by Evan Ellingson is a complete afterthought, and almost feels CGI'd into the rest of the film. Long, lingering segments of him sneaking out of the house and walking the city streets in the middle of the night pepper the narrative. Why? Is he a hustler? Has the stress of his home life caused him to whore himself out for attention, a la Severine in Belle du Jour? Now there's an interesting movie.

Grade: D+