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 V.18 No.26 | June 25 - July 1, 2009 

Film Review

My Sister's Keeper

Kids = cute. Sick kids = sad ... and cute.

“Did you just call me a rude, thoughtless pig?”
“Did you just call me a rude, thoughtless pig?”

My Sister's Keeper

Directed by Nick Cassavetes

Cast: Abigail Breslin, Cameron Diaz, Alec Baldwin

There are those who maintain that whole milk, gathered in the “old-fashioned” way—that is, gently hand-pulled straight from a cow’s udder and quaffed fresh from the milkmaid’s bucket—is among the most pure and genuine of food experiences. Those selfsame purists would also say that milk obtained by more modern methods—say, from an industrial milking machine on the floor of some massive factory—is more of a soulless, mechanical product. I don’t know from farms. But I do know movies. And there’s a vast difference between a tearjerker that earns its emotions in a seamless and organic manner and one that cranks up the waterworks with all the subtlety of a fireman attacking a fireplug with a monkey wrench. My Sister’s Keeper falls squarely in the latter category.

“Who doesn’t love the Rooty Tooty Fresh and Fruity breakfast?”
“Who doesn’t love the Rooty Tooty Fresh and Fruity breakfast?”

The film is based on a book by Oprah-approved author Jodi Picoult (The Pact, Keeping Faith, The Tenth Circle, Change of Heart). I know a lot of people who have tried to read a Jodi Picoult novel, but I don’t know anyone who’s ever actually finished one. Undaunted by the messy treacle, director Nick Cassavetes climbs onboard to direct Picoult’s heart-tugger with all the glossy schmaltz we’ve come to expect from the guy who gave us The Notebook, John Q and She’s So Lovely. Cassavetes’ dad was, of course, John Cassavetes, the famed ’70s director whose pioneering brand of indie cinema verité created such raw, honest films as Faces, Minnie and Moskowitz and The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. Sonny boy Nick, on the other hand, favors films of the more crass and manufactured sort.

My Sister’s Keeper rips a story straight from today’s headlines. Cute little Andromeda “Anna” Fitzgerald (still ubiquitous Abigail Breslin) is a genetically engineered child. Her parents’ older daughter Kate (Sofia Vassilieva from “Medium”) was born with leukemia. With every system shutting down and spare parts at a premium, mom and dad (Cameron Diaz and Jason Patric) make the allegedly difficult decision to mix up the perfect donor sibling in a test tube. The result is Anna, who spends her young life providing stem cells, bone marrow and assorted other genetic material to her sick sis. A decade or so down the line, with Kate still in the process of dying and Anna staring down her tween years, the younger daughter makes a difficult (but headline-worthy) decision. Spunky (and, naturally, precocious) Anna hires a lawyer (Alec Baldwin, going for “colorful,” but not “wacky”) and sues her parents for medical emancipation. She doesn’t want to be a guinea pig any more—even if it means her sister’s death.

While it sets audiences up for an inevitable, “Boston Legal”-style courtroom drama, My Sister’s Keeper comes across as fatally distracted from the matter at hand. The legal shenanigans are brief and confined largely to the final reel. Before that, the narrative jumps around frenetically in time and place working up various vignettes about the dysfunctional Fitzgerald clan’s tumultuous history. Each and every character gets to take over the narration at one point or another, nattering on in voice-over about various, rather obvious points. Though it’s probably faithful to the book, it’s annoying to be told by every character on screen that they’re part of a “dysfunctional” family. It’s a movie, Mr. Cassavetes; you need to show, not tell.

Of course everybody (and I do mean everybody) has got some secret, weep-worthy backstory to reveal. Hell, even the judge in the trial (Joan Cusack) gets to tear up revealing her hidden family drama. Those with a susceptibility for such things will certainly squirt a few out before this maudlin parade is over. If only the film weren’t so damn awkward. The structure is confusing, the narration is annoying and the plot patently obvious. The only real drama comes from the fact that mom (who is also, conveniently, a lawyer) is oblivious to what everyone else can plainly see. Diaz (proving herself no great actress) rants and raves like a lunatic bitch almost the entire movie trying to figure out a way to force one daughter to donate a kidney to briefly prolong the life of another daughter. Sure, it’s understandable why a mother would fight so long and hard for the life of her firstborn, but the role has precious little subtlety to it. My Sister’s Keeper extends its heavily manufactured family squabble for dramatic rather than logical reasons.

Further distracting things is a lengthy middle sequence in which Kate falls in love with a fellow cancer patient. It’s cute and quite touching and proves that Vassilieva is this film’s finest asset—but it feels like the plot to another movie. In the end, the script musters up a minor “twist” of an ending that amounts to a total cop-out. It lets everybody off the hook, karmically speaking, and completely invalidates any argument over medical ethics—which is what got this whole thing started in the first place. (For those who have read Picoult’s novel, I should mention that it’s a completely different cop-out than the one in the book.)

For all its heartrending and tear-inducing, My Sister’s Keeper is just a bloated, overly cast version of a Lifetime channel movie. Three of Picoult’s books have already been turned into Lifetime movies, and My Sister’s Keeper probably should have joined that list. Still, for all its flaws, you can’t say My Sister’s Keeper fails in its mission. Even though the tool marks are deep on this Hollywood product, audiences looking for an excuse to break out the Kleenex will get one.


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