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The Ya-Ya cacophony

April 25, 2003 13:19 IST

Ellen Burstyn and Sandra BullockDivine Secrets Of The Ya-Ya Sisterhood is about a group of women, made by a virtual army of women for all of womankind.

At least that seems to be the avowed intention of this tale that derives its title from a Rebecca Wells novel.

That it is directed by Callie Khouri, who wrote Ridley Scott's Thelma And Louise (Susan Sarandon, Geena Davis, Brad Pitt), a wonderfully touching film about female bonding, makes it sound like a promising prospect.

Unfortunately, Divine Secrets is superfluous, though it does tug at your heartstrings on a couple of occasions.

The story opens with four little girls sitting around a campfire in the dead of the night, creating the mystical Ya-Ya Sisterhood by exchanging drops of their blood and formalising this unique society by drinking hot chocolate from a fancy glass.

Many moons later, Sidda (Sandra Bullock) the daughter of this band's spirited leader, Vivi (Ellen Burstyn), has become a famous playwright in New York. In an interview to Time magazine, she speaks of a difficult childhood and attributes most of her troubles to her mother.

All hell breaks loose as Vivi reads this admission and banishes her daughter from her life. Sidda responds with equal defiance and the two headstrong women exchange an unpleasant bunch of FedEx packages to write each other off.

Through it all, Vivi's sage husband, Shep (James Garner), and Sidda's stoical fiancé, Connor (Angus MacFadyen), stand patient, perhaps waiting for the two women in their lives to grow up. Their superficial presence gives you the impression that, since this is an all-women flick, they are of little consequence.

Enter the easily excitable Ya-Ya Sisters -- Teensy (Fionnula Flanagan), Necie (Shirley Knight) and Caro (Maggie Smith) -- who rush to New York with an elaborate plan that involves kidnapping Sidda and taking her through a guided tour down memory lane to tell her what her mother really was.

You think there is something profound about Vivi's life that both Sidda and we have yet to discover. You get a flaky story of a carefree young woman (Ashley Judd), who is emotionally disturbed by the acute differences between her warring parents and her fiancé's death in World War II.

While it is easy to sympathise with her, it is difficult to understand why this spirited woman marries a fairly nondescript farmer, has four children by him and then proceeds to beat them up on a regular basis. Sidda, as the oldest of her brood, has to bear the brunt of her mother's violent tantrums and remembers them very vividly. But there are some good times too.

What the good farmer is doing while his wife slips into hysteria, gets drunk out of her wits and belts her kids black and blue is a mystery that remains unanswered.

Eventually, Vivi goes into therapy and comes out somewhat better equipped to handle life.

Somewhere along this flashback, Sidda realises that, in some ways, she is exactly like her mother. This explains why she spent seven years making up her mind about marrying Connor. The road to this realisation is too contrived to make an impression.

A still from Divine Secrets Of The Ya-Ya SisterhoodWhile the Ya-Ya sisters have great punch lines, the story barely scratches the surface of their lives. We know them only through their association with Vivi. Ditto for Sidda's siblings, who only figure in the narrative when it is time to get thrashed by their mother. What happened to them after they grew up, we never find out.

Despite its inherent flaws, Divine Sisters makes an impression thanks to its wonderful cast. Burstyn and Judd have a remarkable likeness. While the former displays great flair for dramatic poses and pauses, Judd lends an air of listlessness to the younger Vivi and yet looks full of life when in element.

Smith is the spunkiest of the Ya-Ya sisters. Bullock's lively persona shines through as Sidda but doesn't get much screen time amidst the cacophony of the Ya-Yas.

Don't watch this one unless you are looking for an average, feel-good melodrama.
Deepa Gumaste