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Tuesday, June 30, 2009

My Sister's Keeper

Whenever I see a book by Jodi Picoult I think it should come shrink-wrapped with a box of Kleenex and the Advisory Label: Ladies, start your tear ducts. Her books inevitably take a horrible situation and make it worse, whether it involves a school shooting (Nineteen Minutes), child abuse (Perfect Match), teenage suicide (The Pact), or birth defects (Handle With Care). She can ratchet up the tragedy by spreading around the sorrow from family member to family member to make sure we appreciate all aspects of the misery within a situation. In other words, she is pretty much my mother-in-law without realizing it. That shrew can spread unhappiness and gloom like it was butter on toast.

Now I’m not one to go to the movies to cry that often, but if you’re in the mood, this will definitely do the trick. Just make sure you stop at the concession stand and get yourself some popcorn or candy before you settle in or you might go too far and slit your wrists or some other unpleasant and depressing act that the staff won’t want to clean up between shows; it might be best to have a diversion, something like a tasty treat on hand, during this morose marathon to distract you if you are the depressive type because this is not going to cheer you up if you’re already in the dumps.

Oh, and as a matter of fact, and I don’t usually do this, I might also suggest My Sister’s Keeper as a good date movie for anybody who wants to break up with their girlfriend and is just looking for an opening to start a fight. Take your date to this tear-jerker and think about hockey through the whole thing, whatever is necessary to hold back the saline, then when it is over, tell her you thought this was “pretty sucky for a comedy.” That ought to do the trick. From there, just ride the train out the door and say “Thank you” if you see me on the street someday.

I am not ashamed to tell you that I am in the middle of my third decade of psychotherapy, and yet while I still have no idea who I really am, I do know that I would handle myself better than Sara Fitzgerald (Cameron Diaz; What Happens in Vegas) does as a mother to daughter Anna (Abigail Breslin; Kit Kittredge: An American Girl). Poor Anna was concocted in a Petri dish as a product of “preimplantation genetic diagnosis” to provide “spare parts” for her older sister, Kate (Sofia Vassilieva; tv’s “Medium”), who was diagnosed with Leukemia when she was three. It seemed like a great solution to save Kate’s life when she needed bone marrow as a toddler and neither of her parents or her brother could donate theirs, but now it is thirteen years later and Kate has undergone any number of treatments and Anna has experienced countless surgeries, transfusions, and shots since she was a baby without question or without being asked to keep Kate alive. Anna is tired of living with the knowledge that she was born and raised not to be loved for herself but as a tool for her parents to use for her sister whenever they think it is necessary.

When Kate develops cancer in her kidneys, the very fact that Anna even questions whether she should have to give up a kidney of her own upon command rocks the Fitzgerald household. Anna is tired of being the “second class” daughter and she has studied the long-term effects that donation may have on her. It could mean she won’t be able to have children, and it will definitely mean that as a teen she won’t be able to do the things that other girls her age might want to do, like be a cheerleader or a gymnast (or drink like a fish at high school football games and then perform unmentionable acts under the bleachers with total strangers. Oh wait. That was just me). That means nothing to her mother, who has made a pledge to never give up on Kate. Sara is determined to fight the good fight until she finds a way to save her older daughter, no matter what and no matter how long it takes. She’s sort of like George Bush in Iraq. She wouldn’t recognize torture if she was doing it herself. In the midst of this mother and daughter conflict, there is also father Brian (Jason Patric; Downloading Nancy), who says little and does less, but apparently he at least understands his younger daughter’s point of view; and then there’s the girls’ older brother Jesse (Evan Ellingson; tv’s “Miami Vice”), who just seems sadly ignored and lost in all this mess. Oh, and speaking of ignored in all this, there is Kate herself, who may not be ignored physically, but, like Anna, nobody is asking her how she feels about any of this.

So the scene is set for a family showdown as Kate s-l-o-w-l-y dies of kidney failure. As for spunky Anna, she decides to crank up the drama and make sure she keeps both of her kidneys, so she hires an attorney she’s seen on tv, Campbell Alexander (Alec Baldwin; tv’s “30 Rock”), a smarmy kind of guy who seems hard to read, but he promises to aid her in becoming “medically emancipated.”

The performances in My Sister’s Keeper are unequivocally marvelous, and Cameron Diaz should be singled out for her willingness to take on a role that is neither glamorous nor sympathetic for much of the film. She does have her moments when you can’t help but feel your heart ache for her, but mostly she plays the “villain” here, if you can call someone a villain simply because they love too much to know when it is time to let go. Abigail Breslin, as usual, is eerily remarkable for her age and seems to inhabit her character as if she has been living Anna’s life all of her own thirteen years. Big surprises are tv vets Evan Ellingson and Sofia Vassilieva. I’ve never liked either kid on their respective television series, but it is obviously the characters they play and how they are written for the tube because here they rock. Ellingson is painfully heartbreaking as the neglected and at-risk teen who wanders the midnight streets while neither of his parents even realizes he’s not home. His look of surprise and then despair when he encounters his father during an attempt to sneak back into the house unnoticed only to find that his father doesn’t register what his son has been up to is modern tragedy at its finest. As for Vassilieva, she has what would appear to be the hardest ~ or easiest ~ role, depending on your perspective. As Kate, she spends most of the film in bed and bald, made-up to look like she is circling the drain, which always helps when you are playing the dying patient. But Vassilieva imbues Kate with an inner loveliness that makes her character likable and sweet. While she may be dying, she is still a teenager, and Sofia lets that show through the make-up and hospital paraphernalia attached to her. She giggles, blushes, and makes the perfectly inappropriate faces teens do to their parents and siblings whenever the mood hits. Mostly though, she reacts to fellow cancer patient Taylor Ambrose, sensitively played by Thomas Dekker (star of tv’s "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles"). Dekker knocks it out of the park as Kate’s bald prom date, and with his sultry good looks he puts those Twilight studs to shame, hair or not. Last, there is Jason Patric, whose acting career has been in a virtual coma since 1996’s Sleepers. Fortunately, he is not asked to do much here but look pretty, which he definitely is, and his body remains tastefully swoonable at 43. He does have one very moving moment about half-way into the movie, which I won’t spoil for you, but if it doesn’t bring a lump to your throat you either aren’t paying attention or you must be Dick Cheney.

Purists aren’t going to be happy that director/co-writer Nick Cassavetes (Alpha Dog) and his fellow screenwriter Jeremy Leven (The Notebook) have changed the ending of the book, but such is the whim of Hollywood. Even Picoult herself seems resigned to the edit and has given her endorsement to the movie, which is saying a lot. It’s not often an author approves what a studio does to their “baby” because it inevitably involves a lot of butchering (usually for time restraints), but then again, who better to appreciate the concept of cutting pieces out of their baby than the author of My Sister’s Keeper?

Oh, and did I mention this is pretty sucky for a comedy? You might want to bring along some Kleenex. Seriously. My friend went to the theater with no tissues in her purse and didn’t want to rush to the concession stand to grab some napkins because she was afraid she’d miss a good part (and it’s all good), so she watched the entire movie with a tampon under each eye. She looked like she was about to enter a car wash for the entire film. Now that was not attractive.

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