Thursday, August 7, 2008

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2: Still a good fit

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2 (2008) • View trailer for The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for some sensuality
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.7.08
Buy DVD: The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2 • Buy Blu-Ray: Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2 [Blu-ray]

Earlier this summer, plenty of fans couldn't wait to be re-united with Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte and Miranda.

I'm just as pleased to spend more time with Carmen, Tibby, Lena and Bridget.
As the summer following their first year at college draws to a close, events bring
these four best friends — from left, Tibby (Amber Tamblyn), Lena (Alexis
Bledel), Carmen (America Ferrera) and Bridget (Blake Lively) — to the
swooningly romantic Mediterranean island of Santorini, where Lena spent such
a pivotal time with her Greek grandparents in the first film.

The young heroines of Ann Brashares' Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants novels made an engaging leap to the big screen in 2005, in a sweet little film that featured respectable work by rising young stars America Ferrera, Amber Tamblyn, Alexis Bledel and Blake Lively.

At the time, Bledel and Tamblyn were the ones with highly visible careers, on TV's Gilmore Girls and Joan of Arcadia.

Interesting, then, how things change in three years. Gilmore Girls is no more, and Bledel's face has become a bit less familiar; Tamblyn, perhaps the quartet's strongest actress, remains quite busy with indie film projects. On the other hand, both Ferrera and Lively have become the stars of the moment, thanks to Ugly Betty and Gossip Girl.

All of which makes this reunion even more special, because it's unusual for a sequel to attract all its major and supporting players.

I'm also pleased with the approach adopted by new director Sanaa Hamri, taking over for Ken Kwapis. (Screenwriter Elizabeth Chandler worked on both films, although she solos here, having shared credit with Delia Ephron on the first.) Kwapis' approach was a bit too light and frothy, as perhaps was more suited to the first film's focus on flirtations and first love.

The tone is somewhat more serious this time, as established relationships hit the skids and the girls' diverging personalities threaten to destroy the closely knit bond that has held them since childhood. Hamri respects these more serious elements; her film is not marred by (for example) the frivolous and frequent pop song montages that Kwapis employed to excess.

One could argue that this is a revealing distinction between how a male director views young female relationships, and how this same concept is treated by a female director.

Hamri, making her big-screen film debut, is to be congratulated; her approach is noticeably more mature.

The only niggling problem is the relentless forward march of time. All four actresses looked just barely right in the first film, as 16-year-olds (and it was a push for at least two of them). But now they definitely look a bit too old to play 19.

Ah, well. Nothing new in Hollywood. And putting that issue aside, it's remarkably easy to once more become immersed in the lives of these characters.

Following an introductory montage that deftly captures the first film's emotional high points, Chandler's script begins as our four heroines contemplate their options for the summer after their freshman year in college. Carmen (Ferrera), hoping to spend these months with her best buds, is dismayed to discover that all have other plans: Bridget (Lively) will be halfway across the world, at an archeological dig in Turkey; Lena (Bledel) intends to refine her art talents at the Rhode Island School of Design; and Tibby (Tamblyn) wants to finish her NYU film project in New York City.

Carmen, already feeling left out because her newly remarried mother is expecting a baby and selling their house, impulsively decides to accept a chance invitation to work backstage at a theater festival in Vermont.

And so it seems that their "magic pants" — the now well-worn blue jeans that mysteriously fit each girl perfectly — once again will take ample advantage of various shipping services.

The plot's gimmick, for those new to this material, is that the girls allow the jeans to serve as a mystical conduit to their longstanding friendships. Each wears the pants for a week, and then sends them along to the next in line. As revealed in the first film, the pants often work in strange ways, but their presence inevitably accompanies some epiphany or unexpected change.

In terms of emotional stability, our heroines are all over the map. Lena's relationship with Kostos (Michael Rady) — the adorable hunk she met in the previous film, while staying on the idyllic Mediterranean island of Santorini with her Greek grandparents — has hit the skids. To her complete mortification, he's married and expecting a baby.

Tibby and Brian (Leonardo Nam) are a comfortable item, and the intervening years have seem him blossom from a geeky video game champ to a thoughtful and compassionate young man.

Bridget's relationship with her father remains monosyllabic and painfully strained, neither having moved beyond her mother's suicide four years earlier. Finally, Carmen seems to have come to terms with her father's wholly offstage new family — Bradley Whitford being one of the few actors who fails to return for this film — and, aside from feeling a bit left out of her mother's new life, seems relatively comfortable with herself.

Ah, but it doesn't take long for things to change.

As was the case in the first film, Hamri and Chandler structure the narrative to spend some time with each girl in turn, with no single sequence running more than five minutes or so. Although this could be frustrating, the script's episodic nature lends itself to this approach, and it's actually nice to watch these stories unfold and intertwine, as the summer progresses and the girls move in and out of each other's lives.

And, refreshingly, the problems that crop up feel quite reasonable: by no means overly melodramatic, but instead comfortably calculated to seem persuasively "catastrophic" to each young woman.

Carmen's saga is the most interesting, in terms of new supporting characters. Having been noticed by one of the company actors, Ian (Tom Wisdom, a young Brit with considerable charm and presence), she allows herself to be dragged into a tryout for the summer production of Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale.

To her astonishment — and to the grim annoyance of Julia (Rachel Nichols, late of TV's Alias), who invited Carmen to Vermont in the first place — she impresses the company director (Kyle MacLachlan) and wins the pivotal role of Perdita.

Lena, meanwhile, having regressed to her shy and withdrawn ways, is seriously mortified to discover that the first nude model in her life-study class is a guy (Jesse Williams, as Leo) — a sweet sequence, when these two meet — although her embarrassment recedes as his interest in her escalates.

Tibby, having landed a dream job in a video rental shop as a means of financing her film, hits a serious crisis — wholly self-generated, but no less important — in her relationship with Brian.

And Bridget ... well, her storyline isn't entirely convincing. The film wants to bring her to a certain place, but the journey feels contrived. On the basis of having realized that a partially reconstructed skeleton belonged to a young mother dead these many thousands of years, Bridget goes into an emotional crisis, abandons the archaeological dig and sets off to re-connect with the grandmother (Blythe Danner) who has remained estranged for years, and for reasons that never are explained properly.

This storyline feels forced and manipulative, although the delightfully crusty Danner certainly isn't a problem; her performance is nicely shaded across many emotional lines.

The same cannot be said of the film's other major new character, Lena's hitherto unseen younger sister, Effie (Lucy Hale). Frankly, she's a petulant, self-centered, arrogant little pain in the ass, and not for a moment do I buy the degree to which the script has her interfere with Tibby's life.

Such issues notwithstanding, the quiet encounters between various characters are for the most part endearing and capably performed. Ferrera and Wisdom strike wonderfully romantic sparks, and Carmen's wounded reactions to Julia's insidiously belittling remarks make us want to reach into the screen and smack the blond out of Nichols' hair.

Bledel and Williams share a similarly erotic chemistry, particularly when preparing food. (He cooks in the manner of an artist, never following recipes and instead blending ingredients because they look or "feel" right.) Tamblyn and Nam make their sudden crisis feel fresh despite its familiarity, and Lively interacts well with both Danner and Shohreh Aghdashloo, as the sensitive archaelogical dig supervisor.

Everything comes to a head back on the swooningly romantic Santorini.

I could complain about the fact that the story's signature gimmick — which is to say, the traveling pants — isn't exploited as consistently as was the case in the first film, but that may be intentional, as a way of amplifying where these characters are now. We do, however, get a strong sense of closure; I rather doubt we'll see a third film in this series, in which case The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2 is a lovely note on which to conclude.

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