Appealing, often delightful and even a little heartbreaking, "Divine Secrets Of The Ya-Ya Sisterhood" (IMDb listing) should be remembered for achieving one goal that no other film in the last 10 years has even thought to attempt: taking the starch out of Maggie Smith. Dropping the mink stole, the pinched, viciously abrasive voice and dying the gray out of her hair (or is it returning to her natural brown?), Smith, after a lifetime of roles that required nothing more than an upper-class sneer out of her, is a revelation. Her performance is indicative of the entire "Ya-Ya" movie, as it's one of the few opportunities we, the audience, will have to see such powerhouse female talent onscreen together.
Playwright Siddalee Walker (Sandra Bullock) has accidentally alienated her blowhard Southern mother, Vivi (Ellen Burstyn), with a Time Magazine interview in which she honestly details what it was like to have such an overbearing mother during her tumultuous childhood. This ignites long dormant feelings of animosity between the two, and on the eve of Siddalee's nuptials, Vivi stops talking to her daughter. Coming to the rescue are three of Vivi's best friends, Caro (Maggie Smith), Teensy (Fionnula Flanagan) and Necie (Shirley Knight), who as children formed a secret club called the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. The Ya-Yas kidnap Siddalee from New York and bring her back home to study the sacred Ya-Ya scrapbook, which details the very same personal struggles in Vivi's life. The Ya-Yas hope that Siddalee will understand how her mother thinks, and how the information on the past might help her reach a better understanding with her mother in the present.
When the opening titles list "Ya-Ya" as "An All Girl Production," you know it has something up its sleeve. The picture was written and directed by Callie Khouri, herself the Academy-Award winning screenwriter of the "feminist" classic, "Thelma And Louise." Khouri makes her directing debut with "Ya-Ya," and the years of toiling away in the underbelly of the industry have made a uniquely confident director out of her. In taking on the considerable beast of adapting Rebecca Wells' beloved "Ya-Ya" novel to the screen, Khouri's sensitivity to the source material, mixed with her own ideas for the story, form a nice blend of the cinematic and the written word. Khouri has a proficient way of framing her shots for maximum visual communication, and her willingness to let the actors do what they must do to convey the scene (co-star Ashley Judd has a powerful 30-second take in which she does nothing but stare into a mirror and contemplate her fractured self) is both beneficial to the complex nature of the story and ballsy for any director to do in these days of MTV editing and audience pandering. It's an assured debut, and a promise of even greater things out of Khouri.
But the help she receives in the acting department is criminal. With a literal block party of trustworthy female talent to bring the characters to life, "Ya-Ya" also provides these immensely talented ladies a chance to shine like never before. Besides the aforementioned Maggie Smith (did I mention how bizarre it is to see her not holding onto a tea cup?), "Ya-Ya" holds Sandra Bullock, Ashley Judd, Fionnula Flanagan ("The Others"), Shirley Knight ("As Good As It Gets"), Cherry Jones ("Cradle Will Rock"), Ellen Burstyn and Allison Bertolino ("Party Of Five") in its arsenal. And each of these actresses have been somewhat stuck in a rut lately. "Ya-Ya" opens the doors for characterization out of them, and each actress gives a memorable and polished performance, fulfilling the promise of past delights. This is especially true for Bullock, who is prone to taking roles beneath her, and in "Ya-Ya" she nicely vaults between comedy and drama with an ease that drives me mad when I think about the two hours of my life that I lost sitting through pure drivel like "Murder By Numbers." Khouri allows each character her own moments and defining traits, which makes you appreciate what each actress brings to the table even more. You won't see this type of casting freedom again anytime soon, so for fans of these ladies, you'd better soak up "Ya-Ya" while you can.
As for the lowly two men of the picture, both James Garner and Angus MacFadyen have their nice little moments here and there, but the picture isn't about men, so Khouri knows when to pull back on the male point of view. She deserves some kind of award though for pulling a nicely textured performance out of MacFadyen, a player notorious for his hammy acting.
Of course, most literary translations falter somewhere, and "Ya-Ya" finds its creative roadblock in the portrayal of Vivi's slight case of madness during her mothering years. It appears from the film that this subplot was a major section of the Wells novel, but in the film, it isn't cooked long enough to truly bring the flavor out of what it has to say about the character. I found it too rushed and isolated an incident to continue the gradual emotional revelations that Khouri works so hard to maintain. Its importance to the overall story is not questioned, but in a film ripe with melodramatic horror stories of a Southern childhood, this specific story seemed to render slack the overall impact of the final movement.
Even with this little obstruction in the way of a true emotional involvement, "Divine Secrets Of The Ya-Ya Sisterhood" still has so many pleasures on its plate that it's almost impossible to resist.
Filmfodder Grade: B+