It's no surprise that the Louisiana-born novelist Rebecca Wells has seen her wildly popular books translated into 18 languages, with no less than six million copies in print. She's no deep-thinking stylist, but she has an unfailing gift for injecting Southern sentimentality, low-grade neurosis and mischievous charm into stories that deftly strum the heartstrings of women everywhere -- even in Yankeedom. The star-laden movie version of Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood follows in the wake of the best-selling 1999 hardcover, the paperback, the large-print edition, the audiocassette and the CD. There's no telling how many new fans will now be lured into Wells' tent via the local multiplex.
For the uninitiated (who must number in the dozens), Sisterhood is a good-natured drama of family reconciliation, faintly scented with magnolia and carefully embroidered with wit. Actually, director Callie Khouri and her co-writer, Mark Andrus, have incorporated a few elements of an earlier Wells book, Little Altars Everywhere, but not even the author's most ardent followers are likely to object. What we have here is the familiar tale of a distraught daughter who must make peace with a difficult mother so everybody can go home happy and wait for the sequel.
The daughter, whose name is Sidda Lee Walker, is said to be a successful New York playwright. But we see virtually no evidence of her artistic skills, and if there's an actress who gives off fewer smart-writer vibes than dark-eyed beauty Sandra Bullock, it's hard to name her. The eccentric mother, Vivi Walker, is played in the present day by Ellen Burstyn and, in a slew of flashbacks to the '60s, by Ashley Judd. The main challenge presented by this double billing is in trying to imagine the links between Burstyn's bellowing, Bloody Mary-fueled martyr and Judd's reluctant, heartsick young wife and mother, who throws down dexies and Miltowns with such abandon that she one day finds herself in a far-off motel room wondering how she got there. Aside from the ingestion of poisons, these two Vivis have so little in common that you wonder if they're the same species, much less the same person.
Little matter. The crucial ingredients in Sisterhood's emotional gumbo are not the mother and daughter. They are Vivi's three lifelong friends -- Teensy, Necie and Caro. The names may sound like rejects from the Seven Dwarfs, but their presence gives lifeblood to a movie in sore need of it. Portrayed by Fionnula Flanagan, Shirley Knight and Maggie Smith, respectively, they are amiable Southern battleaxes in the Steel Magnolias tradition, as fond of bourbon on the rocks as of pithy country aphorisms. They are exactly the right people to drug and kidnap Sidda, hide her away in a bayou shack and thenceforth instruct the poor child in the real facts of her misunderstood mother's life. That provokes a little more era-jumping than most movies can bear, and there's more cartoon than actual character in these loyal, lifetime members of the "Ya-Ya Sisterhood," formed way back when Vivi and her friends were preteens. But these wonderfully adept actresses take so much pleasure in playing long-faded Southern belles, in mixing the genteel and the bawdy as they conduct their extended therapy session, that it will be difficult for even the most hardened Yankee curmudgeon to resist them. Sidda certainly can't. By the time these lovable bats get done working over our emotionally dented young heroine, she not only understands dear old mama much better, but happily accepts her own induction into the Ya-Ya's.
The entire process is enacted in a haze of tinkling zydeco and graceful antebellum columns, as befits a movie that chooses to ignore the tragic fables of Southern history in favor of feel-good redemption -- right down to a suspiciously harmonious view of Louisiana race relations. Director of photography John Bailey and production designer David J. Bomba put as lovely a patina on Sisterhood's bucolic settings as on the experienced faces of its actresses. As for the actors -- James Garner plays Vivi's passive, good-guy husband, Angus MacFadyen Sidda's embattled, good-guy fiancé -- they are nothing more than accessories to be occasionally turned on and off, as women so often are in, say, war movies.
While the throngs reach into their purses for fresh Kleenex -- this movie works hard for its laughter and tears -- some viewers may come away with one major question. Why has Callie Khouri, a writer who startled men and women alike with her brilliant screenplay for Thelma & Louise, chosen a project this mainstream-safe for her directorial debut? Who knows. Let's see where she goes next.