Updating Steel Magnolias for the Oprah empire, Divine Secrets Of The Ya-Ya Sisterhood epitomizes the sort of book-club twaddle that scared off Jonathan Franzen, a thin tale of female bonding and empowerment with a shoutable catchphrase ("Ya-Ya!") and a veneer of New Age fuzziness. First-time director Callie Khouri, who has softened considerably since writing the screenplay for Thelma & Louise, mixes a pair of Rebecca Wells novels into a star-studded, multi-generational hash that explains away the present by lurching awkwardly into the past. What must have been intended as a sweeping tapestry of Southern family, friendship, and womanhood instead seems narrow and trite, hinging on one big secret that serves as a skeleton key for the entire production. That kind of quik-stop psychology may work for daytime talk shows, where a life-changing answer to every problem lies between commercial breaks, but it reduces a large cast to an unwieldy collection of simpletons and caricatures. The film opens in the Louisiana bayou in 1937, where four young girls perform an initiation ritual for the Ya-Ya Sisterhood involving Indian headdresses, a couple of chants, and a blood pact. Flash forward to the present, where the four still bicker with each other—especially the volatile Ellen Burstyn, who throws a fit when her New York playwright daughter (Sandra Bullock) talks about her traumatic childhood in a Time magazine interview. On a mission to reconcile mother and daughter, Ya-Ya sisters Maggie Smith, Shirley Knight, and Fionnula Flanagan kidnap Bullock and drag her back to Louisiana. (They do this by slipping her "the date-rape drug" and smuggling her onto a plane, but it would have been just as plausible had they shoved her into their homemade matter transporter.) As the equally stubborn parties refuse to speak with each other, the film searches for the source of their dispute in the past, when the then-young mother (Ashley Judd) grappled with a tumultuous marriage and bouts of alcoholism. Khouri inserts the flashbacks as a crude form of pop-psychological shorthand, making the connections to the present all too clear, uncomplicated by the thorny details of a real family history. The song selections by T-Bone Burnett—Bob Dylan, Lauryn Hill, Alison Krauss, Macy Gray, Richard and Linda Thompson, and others—give the film its only authentic flavor, underscoring the lack of dimension in the foreground. As for the Ya-Ya sisters, their crazy voodoo rituals don't seem to have any magic or guiding philosophy, other than forging lifelong friendships with a little extra sass. And in the Hollywood South of Divine Secrets, sass is not exactly in short supply.
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