While many have stated that films rarely compare to the novels that they are based upon, it's a more interesting comparison to ask if, now that one has seen the movie, would they be interested in reading the book? With the "Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood", my answer would likely be no. This is a loud, occasionally shrill picture that I can vividly imagine would have been several times more unpleasant if a series of remarkable actresses weren't involved.
The film opens with Sidda Lee Walker (Sandra Bullock) discussing the kind of relationship she had with her mother Vivi (Ellen Burstyn) when she was younger. A rather unpleasant quote ends up in Time magazine, fueling a vicious little battle between her and her Southern mother. It's up to the "Ya Yas" - Vivi's friends Teensy (Fionnula Flanagan), Necie (Shirley Knight), and Caro (Maggie Smith) to get the daughter reunited with the mother. When Sidda doesn't go quietly, the girls resort to drugging her (I'm not kidding) and driving her back down South. Once there, they open up the scrapbook and try to explain why her possibly disturbed mother is who she is. Apparently, Vivi has other kids, although the movie never explains why they aren't involved.
The remainder of the film jumps back-and-forth between present day, the 60's (when Ashley Judd plays Vivi) and the 30's. Although based upon two novels (Rebecca Wells' "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood" and "Little Altars Everywhere", adapted by Mark Andrus, who was responsible for the similarly manipulative "Life as a House") that I've never read, I clearly felt that both have been rather messily jumbled together, as the constant flashbacks add up to unfocused, "where is this going?" storytelling and equally slow pacing. There's also a lot of issues in regards to the past problems that Vivi has had that have lead up to her current state (or why Sidda should be so quickly understanding) that are not as well-realized as they could be. The existence of infrequent humor in the story with all of the sorrow also isn't handled particularly well, making for some moments that felt rather uncomfortable in the midst of the rest of the movie.
As for the male characters, they're largely afterthoughts. James Garner is stuck with a paper-thin character and walks around looking as if he's just strolled in from his trailer. Sidda's fiancee, played by Angus McFadden, tries to be the one voice of reason, wondering why these women can't simply talk out their problems. The female characters, despite being played by a list of exceptional actors, do not deliver particularly interesting performances, although the fault largely resides in the script. Bullock is supposed to be playing an unhappy character that's even further irritated by the fact that she's been dragged back into the situation. Unfortunately, Bullock plays it in a way that's too low-key and not nearly vivid enough. The three Ya-Yas give it their best shot, but all three are also playing stereotypes that remain rather cutesy. It's especially disapointing, given Smith's brilliant performance in "Gosford Park". Burstyn also does the best she can developing a character that's unsympathetic and whose backstory isn't as well thought-out as it should have been. Judd shows the most range, but also gets stuck in a scene where nearly every one of her kids has or is about to puke on her.
A few notable positives exist just off-camera. The scope cinematography by John Bailey crisply captures the attractive Southern settings, while T. Bone Burnett ("Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?") provides a pleasant, light score that thankfully does not try and manipulate the audience or underline the Big Emotional Moments. This is a directing debut for Callie Khouri, whose screenplays for "Something To Talk About" and "Thelma and Louise" I've never been particularly big fans of. While she has clearly been able to round up a legion of highly talented actresses, she doesn't put them to much use here. I admit that I may not be the target audience for this picture, but I felt as if I'd seen these situations before in movies that boasted more developed characters and relationships and, as a result, were more effective.
VIDEO: "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood" is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen by Warner Brothers. Bailey's cinematography is a little bit on the soft side, but the transfer still manages to offer respectable clarity and detail.
Only a few minor problems were spotted throughout the presentation. The print used did display some minor specks and grain, but these few problems were hardly bothersome. Edge enhancement remained at a surprising minimum, only barely visible. No pixelation or other flaws were spotted. The film's warm color palette looks a little softly rendered, but I suppose that's the kind of look the film is going for.
SOUND: "Divine Secrets" is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1. As one might expect from this kind of picture, there's definitely no fireworks involved with the audio. Surround use is very minimal, with a rare sound effect and some reinforcement for the score. When the score isn't around, this folds up into a completely dialogue-driven presentation. Audio quality was fine, if unexceptional, as dialogue remained clear and the score sounded warm - but didn't have a whole lot of presence.
MENUS: The main menu provides some slight animation, while sub-menus remain non-animated.
Commentaries: The DVD includes two commentaries: one with Khouri, producers Bonnie Bruckheimer and Hunt Lowry, executive producer Lisa Stewart, editor Andrew Marcus and composer T-Bone Burnett and the other with Khouri and actress Ashley Judd. The participants in both commentaries have been recorded together and I browsed through both tracks. The Judd/Khouri track is a pleasant enough affair, as the two discuss how much they enjoyed working with the cast and occasionally provide a fun story or joke about the production. The other commentary, however, is a more informative and interesting discussion of the production, as all of the participants get together to provide a more focused discussion of their attempts to structure the story as well as getting the rights to the novel and taking it from the page to the screen. Both are enjoyable commentaries, but the group filmmaker commentary is the more involving and detailed of the two.
Also: 16 minutes of deleted footage, the film's theatrical trailer, a photo gallery, Alison Krauss music video and 13-minute promotional featurette.
Final Thoughts: Not terrible, but not a film I found involving or particularly memorable either, "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood" gathers a lot of fine actresses together for a result that's less than I expected. Warner Brothers has provided a very nice DVD, complete with lots of supplements and very good audio/video quality, though. Fans of the film should clearly seek a purchase, but I'd recommend only a rental otherwise.
The Film **