Friday, June 26, 2009

My Sister's Keeper: Stacked deck

My Sister's Keeper (2009) • View trailer for My Sister's Keeper
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for dramatic intensity and teen sexuality
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.26.09
Buy DVD: My Sister's Keeper• Buy Blu-Ray: My Sister's Keeper [Blu-ray]

Although My Sister's Keeper is laced with intriguing little mysteries and fueled by a thought-provoking legal issue, the big question is whether Cameron Diaz's Sara Fitzgerald is a sympathetic character ... or a monomaniacal monster.

It's a crucial issue, since it likely will determine the degree to which audiences will embrace this film.
Having done the unthinkable, by rebelling against her parents and refusing to
participate in any more medical procedures that might prolong her older
sister's life, Anna (Abigail Breslin) finally finds herself in court with her
compassionate attorney, Campbell Alexander (Alec Baldwin). What follows
will be a most unusual trial ... even more so than Anna anticipates.

There's very little to admire about Diaz's portrait of Sara, even though considerable latitude must be granted a mother determined to do anything to save the life of a critically ill daughter.

Just what "anything" might encompass, of course, is the heart of the best-selling book by Jodi Picoult, on which this film is based.

Director/co-scripter Nick Cassavetes  working with Jeremy Leven, who adapted The Notebook  has made a contemplative, obviously heartfelt adaptation of Picoult's book, and the film is highlighted by numerous strong, sensitive and impeccably shaded performances.

Diaz's, alas, is not one of them ... which reveals my take on the question posed in the first paragraph.

Diaz simply doesn't have the acting chops for what should be a delicately balanced role. The benefit of getting to know such a character in a book is the time invested: Picoult has ample room to grant Sara Fitzgerald an opportunity to transition from well-balanced woman to a frenzied she-bear.

But we meet Sara only as the latter in this film, and  despite the numerous flashbacks Cassavetes employs  Diaz is a shrill, one-note shrike throughout. She's unpleasant, dictatorial, callous and thoroughly unpleasant, and we therefore can't sympathize with the family catastrophe that may have brought a once kinder woman to this moment. Not at all.

Even the occasional act of nobility  as when Sara shaves her head, in order to show solidarity with her bald elder daughter  emerges more as a gesture of angry spite (absolutely the wrong reading!) than compassion.

I was reminded of Jack Nicholson's equally one-sided interpretation of Jack Torrance, in Stanley Kubrick's ill-advised 1980 adaptation of Stephen King's The Shining. If Nicholson plays the part as a deranged lunatic from the get-go  which he does  then we have no sense of a good man being converted to evil by the inhabitants of a haunted hotel.

Similarly, Diaz grants us no glimpse of what must have been, at one time, a gentler woman.

Picoult's story, at the cutting edge where medical technology runs afoul of ethical considerations, begins when Sara and Brian Fitzgerald (Jason Patric) learn that their 2-year-old daughter, Kate, has leukemia. They have time to consider options and, thanks to genetic engineering, conceive another child specifically to save Kate's life.

That would be Anna, who subsequently faces invasive and painful medical procedures to harvest her blood, bone marrow and various other bodily assets from the time she is born, in order to keep Kate alive. We must blithely accept that doctors and hospital staff would condone and even participate in so many lengthy "elective" operations with a patient too young to grant consent; viewers with a hair-trigger aversion to child abuse may never get past this plot point.

Cassavetes cleverly conceals this potential obstacle by beginning his film toward the end of the story, at the point Kate (Sofia Vassilieva) is 14, and Anna (Abigail Breslin) is 11; we get to know the girls as vibrant members of a clearly dystunctional but still deeply bonded family that includes the girls' older brother, Jesse (Evan Ellingson).

The crisis is generated when the precocious Anna impulsively hires her own lawyer  Campbell Alexander, wonderfully played by Alec Baldwin  in order to declare "medical emancipation" and prevent her parents from removing one of her kidneys. Only then, during the build-up to the subsequent courtroom trial, do we learn the actual degree to which Anna has suffered up to this point.

By then, it seems a little more reasonable  just as Cassavetes obviously intended  because we've gotten to know Kate so well, thanks to Vassilieva's simply amazing performance.

The additional point is that Anna has been able to spend many years with a sister who otherwise would have died before she was old enough to register her existence.

On the other hand  as the intelligent and inquisitive Anna is perceptive enough to ask  would she even be alive, had Kate not been sick?

And how long could  should  this treatment be permitted to continue? If Anna agrees to a kidney, what might come next? A lung? Does such treatment only become blindingly barbaric when a visible part of her is contemplated, such as an arm or a leg?

Cassavetes and Leven retain the book's multiple points of view, with the various characters filling in bits of backstory via off-camera narration. This works better with some characters than others; ultimately, it feels as if most of these interior monologues come from Breslin's Anna.

And because Breslin such a marvelous young actress, with a sensitive, owl-eyed stare that could melt stone, she successfully pulls off the phenomenal feat of making us believe that Anna loves her sister deeply, despite wanting to deny her the kidney that might  might, mind you  keep Kate alive.

Vassilieva is similarly nuanced, alternating  as changing moods would impact a teenager  from frightened to resigned, angry to quietly thoughtful. She's persuasive throughout, in no small part because the extensive make-up department gives the young actress a progressively gaunt pallor, complete with crusted lips and blackened eyes, that is convincing enough to be unsettling.

Gone are the days when a movie character perishes from a terminal disease by becoming progressively more attractive, as with Ali MacGraw in Love Story; here, Vassilieva's descent is brutal, her wan struggle for continued survival a palpable constant. Indeed, that's part of what makes watching this film so difficult; it emphatically feels like we spend the entire time watching a girl die.

Ellingson, sadly, never really brings Jesse into focus; the film shamefully ignores him, much the way Sara and Brian are shown to have overlooked their son's learning disability while concentrating on Kate. Apparently Jesse is confused and lonely, and takes to wandering the city late at night; unfortunately, we can't help wondering if he's turning tricks as a young street hustler.

Patric, never really acknowledged for his acting skills, is surprisingly sensitive here as Brian; he and Vassilieva share many heart-tugging scenes. More than once, as Sara flies into another rage, father and elder daughter exchange glances that convey massive chunks of emotional exposition without a single spoken word. If this film has a hero, it's clearly Patric; he brings a depth to Brian that makes Diaz's performance seem even more shallow.

Baldwin's Campbell Alexander is a treasure as this saga's voice of reason: a lawyer we immediately view as compassionate and concerned, despite a provocative, ambulance-chasing reputation that seems designed more to enhance his own profile. Do not be fooled: That reputation is carefully crafted, and disarmingly deceptive.

Alexander also comes with a dog that is never away from his side: another of this story's intriguing little details, and one with a very clever payoff.

Joan Cusack, incapable of being anything less than compelling, is memorable as Judge De Salvo, who presides over the trial Alexander mounts on Anna's behalf. De Salvo has her own baggage, which dovetails nicely with the overall narrative structure, and Cusack delivers a perfect blend of sensitivity, judicial wisdom and her signature feistiness.

On the other hand, De Salvo's own personal sorrow feeds the quite reasonable accusation that Picoult's book  and, by extension, this film  ladles the overwrought melodrama with a trowel. It's not enough that Kate is slowly dying of leukemia, or that Anna has put up with so much medical torture during her young life; Jesse has dyslexia, De Salvo also lost a daughter, and the story's second act introduces Taylor (Thomas Dekker), a fellow cancer patient who develops a relationship with Kate, and we can well imagine where that is gonna go.

Enough, already!

Worse yet, Picoult's book builds to a climactic scorpion's sting intended to be ironic and even more thought-provoking: a dramatic hiccup that Cassavetes and Leven quite wisely (in my humble opinion) chose to ignore. Smart move: It would have infuriated movie audiences ... although by doing so, the filmmakers no doubt will annoy the book's most faithful fans.

Ultimately, this adaptation of My Sister's Keeper is that most curious creature: a whole less than the sum of its many impressive parts. Much as we enjoy spending time with many of these characters, the set-up ultimately feels contrived, the approach irritatingly manipulative.

As advocacy cinema, this film  like Picoult's book  provides ample food for thought. As drama ... not so successful.

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