Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Review: "My Sister's Keeper"

I've heard people say "My Sister's Keeper" is one of the most emotionally devastating books they've ever read, but I just never connected with the movie version of it.

Ostensibly it's a courtroom drama, about a girl named Anna (Abigail Breslin) who sues her parents (Cameron Diaz and Jason Patric) to stop them from making her donate a kidney to her sister, Kate, who is dying of leukemia. But really it's a fairly conventional family-brought-together-by-tragedy drama -- a three-hanky weepy, full of forlorn looks and a lot of wet eyes.

I haven't read the book by Jodi Picoult, but to its fans I will only warn that the film version diverges pretty radically from the text.

One of the biggest mistakes director and co-writer (with Jeremy Leven) Nick Cassavetes ("The Notebook") makes is including some half-hearted narration from each member of the family. We get to hear a bit from Kate, Anna, Mom, Dad and son Jesse, which gives a little of their first-person perspective and then disappears.

It seems like an attempt to make the cast seem balanced, when anyone can see that this is Anna's story. The two male characters in particular are so far on the sidelines, including their narration feels like the filmmakers are throwing them a bone -- pity scenes, if you will.

The best parts of the movie deal with Anna talking about her life, and how she was genetically engineered to serve as spare parts for Kate. At age 11 she's had enough, and hires a lawyer she saw on TV (Alec Baldwin, in a sly performance) to sue her folks. The courtroom scenes have a pretty good snap to them, with Joan Cusack as a sympathetic judge, but they're soon pushed aside for more time at Kate's bedside as she grows more wan.

The movie never addresses the relationship between the sisters, which is puzzling, since Anna is going to court to ensure than Kate will die. Their silence should be a tip-off for the not-so-surprising twist near the end.

Sofia Vassilieva is solid as Kate, and the physical transformation she goes through is impressive, and daunting -- a completely hairless skull (including eyebrows), pallid complexion, blood-tinged eyes and cracked lips.

A quibble: At one point the mother shaves her own head in solidarity with Kate, and there's one scene of her walking around bald, and the very next scene her hair is back to normal. I realize the story jumps around in time, but we only ever see Cameron Diaz with two hairstyles: bald and shoulder-length. Since it would take years to grow from one to the other, the continuity wizards obviously were out to lunch.

I didn't actively dislike "My Sister's Keeper"; I was just enormously indifferent to it. For a story that's supposedly about human connections, that's a death knell.

2 stars

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