[26 June 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
She’s the alien in the other room, the otherworldly creature riddled with a mysterious disease that is, somehow, destroying not only her, but the entire family. Dad maintains an aura of disconnect, while only son Jesse spends far too much time on his own. Mom runs herself ragged seeking any and all answers to her child’s debilitative state as youngest daughter Anna decides to shake the very foundations of what her entire existence has been built upon. You see, this little girl was never truly meant to be. Instead, she was engineered, created to act as a biological bank for her dying sibling to draw upon. And while the figure in the other room shows occasional signs of recovery, Anna is convinced it’s no longer worth playing savior - or perhaps martyr.
As an example of the age old Hollywood weeper as post-modern semi-serious character study, Nick Cassavete’s My Sister’s Keeper is too safe to be wholly successful, too powerful to be merely pushed aside. The basic plot finds Abigail Breslin’s Anna rejecting her role as part of Kate’s (Sofia Vassilieva) fight against leukemia. Ever since her mother and father (Cameron Diaz and Jason Patric, respectively) engineered the girl to be a perfect genetic match for her sister, she’s been poked, prodded and pilfered for anything that can help the curative cause. Now nine, she wants to be medically emancipated, capable of making her own decisions about what can be done to her body (the crisis this time? Kate needs a kidney).
So Anna seeks out the services of reputable shyster Campbell Alexander (Alec Baldwin) and files suit against her parents. This places Cassavetes in a narrative bind that is almost impossible to get out of. Since we are dealing with a scenario playing out in current circumstances, My Sister’s Keeper must constantly rely on the flashback to fill in details we do not have. Even worse, Casavettes overindulges in the musical montage, avoiding actual conversation and confrontation with any one of a number of somber pop songs. What we want from this material is Ordinary People, the pain of dealing with death pent up and channeled in choice suburban WASP-ish tidal waves. Instead, we get VH-1 and lots of music video vagueness.
At least Cassavetes doesn’t go for the easy cinematic manipulation. Kate is never really treated as anything other than special and spirited, even her last act pre-corpse routine rendered ecclesiastical by an ever-present pearly white smile. Similarly, Breslin, for all her hand wringing and secret keeping has to maintain appearances as well. She cries a river and never once misses her emotional beat. But like much of My Sister’s Keeper, we keep waiting for the denouement, the reason we have to witness all this pain and personal suffering. Even Diaz, delivering the kind of nuanced performance that’s been missing from much of her work, does the arm’s length thing. How this woman can be so tireless and yet so blind to the needs of the rest of her family is flabbergasting.
What sets this movie apart from other examples of obvious tear jerking is the desire by Cassavetes to keep everything serious and somewhat understated. We don’t get the scene of massive Method histrionics because the filmmaker is doing what his Dad did best - let people be people. Patric is not some chesty conquering hero. Instead, he does what he can and escapes to his job as a firefighter when times get tough. Diaz may look like a diva in housewife drag, but she’s actually playing the perfect combination of arrogance and individual delusion. She so believes in what she is doing that there is never a crack in the façade, never a moment’s doubt or self-analysis. While Kate gets a couple of normal kid moments - including a romance with the ridiculously perfect cancer kid Taylor - she’s all flawlessly executed scrapbooks and dreamy, dilated pupils.
Fans of the Jodi Picoult novel will truly be devastated by the changes made here. Gone is Guardian ad Litem character Julia Romano. In her place is a grieving judge essayed with quirky grace by Joan Cusak. More troubling, the film cops out with its ending, avoiding the book’s more ironic conclusion to keep things nice and above the marquee neat. It’s hard to say if staying true to Picoult’s version would have made My Sister’s Keeper more well rounded. As it stands, the entire experience feels like a vigil, a cinematic wake simply requiring a body for finalization, and then a funeral. This is not to say that Cassavetes and crew can’t captivate or even more. There are several scenes that will choke up even the most cynical of moviegoers. But as the story shuffles through its clumsy courtroom antics, as issues are left hanging and unresolved, what could have been excellent comes up merely acceptable.
It also has to be said that this could have been the most cloying of syrupy schmaltz, the kind of bleary eyed Lifetime fodder that makes audiences ashamed of falling for the forced affectations. Cassevetes could have let Diaz do the whole overwrought heroine routine, collect his ample paycheck, and go home. Instead, multiple musical observations aside, he sets the stage and lets things play out organically. After that, only the material and the members of his company can undermine him. Luckily, the entire cast is up to the job of jerryrigging this formula into something a little less generic. It’s more than likely Picoult’s fault that this film doesn’t feel more complex. She sets up a simple idea - a little girl wants to decide what to do with her body - and then adds in a number of unnecessary clichés that tend to take all the gravitas out of the concept.
Still, for those who’ve long given up on the five handkerchief experience, who sense that Hollywood only understands the emotions of greed and envy, My Sister’s Keeper will be a welcome return to some semblance of form. We don’t quite understand the ongoing anxiety over Kate’s continuing decline, why over the last 15 or so years some manner of resolution or reconciliation with the situation hasn’t been reached. This is a movie that feels like its missing parts, a couple of song cues taking the place of necessary clash and explanation. Still, with her pale figure, bald head, black eyes, and freak physicality, Kate makes for an intriguing, unusual center. Luckily, the movie surrounding her is better than one might imagine. Unfortunately, it’s also easy to imagine one better.