“You don’t know where you’re going. You don’t know where you are.” So pronounces angry mom Lilly (Felicity Huffman) of her angry daughter Rachel (Lindsay Lohan). They look about equally lost, mom in her Mercedes and Rachel tromping along a road to Idaho, “The Land of the Famous Potato.”
While the women’s rage and chaos are connected and potentially compelling (“I’m in hell,” is Rachel’s perceptive rejoinder), the goony road sign is indicative of what’s most wrong with Garry Marshall’s Georgia Rule. Never settling on a tone and repeatedly undermining its protagonists’ complaints, the movie veers from scene to scene, seemingly rudderless. Advertised as if it’s a wacky Suhthern girls dramedy of the Steel Magnolia variety, in fact, the film offers up a very disturbing story about sexual abuse, substance abuse, and acting out, girls feeling bitter and hopeless, turning cruel and self-destructive.
Case in point: the desperately alcoholic Lilly. Though she has only bad memories of her childhood in Idaho, she somehow believes that “banishing” Rachel to a summer in the sun with her grandmother Georgia (Jane Fonda) will set her straight before she heads off to Vassar in the fall. The girl’s past infractions — ticked off in a series of throwaway lines — include wild promiscuity, drunken car-crashing, and “smoking crank when she was 12.” Unable to imagine an actual reconciliation, much less actual generosity, Lilly claims that she thought a cross-country drive from San Francisco would give them a chance to “talk.” Instead, she leaves Rachel on the road and speeds off to Georgia’s house, whereupon the girl gets a ride with veterinarian Simon (Dermot Mulroney), who just happens to live in that very town, egregiously named Hull, and just happened to have a thing for her mom way back when.
It doesn’t matter that Rachel is unaware of this history at first, because she behaves the same way with Simon no matter what she learns about him, offering her long legs up as irresistible emblems of seduction, her gauzy, low-cut sundress exposing her breasts even as she observes his refusal even to look at her. Her determination: he must be gay.
At the same time that Rachel makes her way into town, Lilly brings her own passive-aggressive challenge to Georgia, in the form of a crystal bowl that Georgia deems a “glass bedpan.” Insulted as she knew she would be, Lilly stomps off to reunite with her husband, Arnold (Cary Elwes). But when Rachel finds herself in a bind — in need of an explanation for her sexual acting out with the local Mormon hunk (Garrett Hedlund), that is, her blow job unto a virgin — she lets slip that Arnold abused her from age 12 through age 14.
It’s a horrific confession in any number of ways, not least in her use of it to bludgeon Simon for behaving like a sad-sack “victim” over the car-accident deaths of his wife and young son a couple of years back. Suitably aghast at her saga, he tells Georgia, who tells Lilly, who hightails it back from San Francisco to have yet another showdown with her daughter, and, because she’s there, her mother too. Glass is broken, tears are shed, and vicious assessments are flung.
In another movie, the kind of movie that director Marshall usually makes, such dark and damaged souls would hardly surface. Rather, the sexual salaciousness, the efforts to assert dominance and inflict spite, would be reframed as gags — arguments over tiaras and dance steps and proper costuming. Here, however, the wrangling is just ugly, and made more so when, for instance, Lilly drinks herself into a near stupor and Rachel and Georgia must drag her upstairs to bed, legs dangling and head lolling.
The movie — much like Rachel’s many targets, from Simon and Harlan to her mom and her grandmother to the Mormon girls spying on her to make sure she bestows no more sexual favors on their bright boy — is caught between awe and horror at her antics. Careless and predictable, Georgia Rule offers up the abuse victim’s “sexy” acting out as alternately beguiling and blameworthy. Arnold argues that she’s lying, and Lilly wants to believe him, because if he’s lying, she’s been a really, really bad mom, rather than just a bad one. At the same time, Simon and Harlan quite appreciate Rachel’s skills, even if they do come with a footnote of injury and tragedy, not to mention the culpability of men who ogle girls, who believe that girls “come on to” them, who see girls’ availability as a function of their biology and men’s own victimization by their uncontrollable libidos. They’re just men, after all. She’s the wily one.
Rachel, for her part, shows off her sickly orange California tan incessantly, insisting that her neurotic behavior stems from self-assured aggression and independence, not vulnerability or unspeakable depression. The movie is perhaps most famous for the fact that Morgan Creek CEO James G. Robinson publicly called out La Lohan for her “discourteous, irresponsible and unprofessional” behavior during the shoot. That this event now finds its way into most discussions of the film, including Fonda’s promotional interviews with Larry King and Letterman, doesn’t precisely bode well for the girl (who appears to be in trouble) or the film (which is most definitely in trouble). The similarities between the fictional and actual exploitations are hardly surprising, but neither are they comforting.
While Rachel goes back and forth on the abuse story, asking viewers to wonder whether she’s lying in self-defense, gravely pathological, or truthfully broken by Arnold, she only appears to complicate the problem posed by her multiple victimizations. At 17, Rachel’s turmoil is hardly atypical, even if her circumstances are extreme. As she both perturbs her miserable mother and wins judgmental Georgia’s admiration, she also becomes the oddly sacrificial redeemer. Her pain is everyone else’s gain.