Sometimes a movie is so earnest, you feel guilty not liking it. The 2009 New Line release "My Sister's Keeper," based on the best-selling novel by Jodi Picoult, has one of those plots that's so sincere you'd think the Hallmark or Lifetime Channel made it, and two stars, Cameron Diaz and Abigail Breslin, so appealing it's hard not to like them in anything. It's also got a plot so contrived and so manipulative, it can either have you in tears or put you into fits of revulsion. I'm afraid that by the time the movie was halfway over, I was in the latter category and never recovered.
Here's the crux of the story: The Fitzpatricks, Sara (Cameron Diaz), a former lawyer, and Brian (Jason Patric), a fireman, have a fourteen-year-old daughter, Kate (Sofia Vassilieva), dying of leukemia. When doctors first diagnosed Kate with cancer about eleven years earlier, the parents decided to have another child, Anna (Abigail Breslin), primarily to use as a donor for the sister. Anna gives her body parts--blood, bone marrow, etc.--to her sister to help prolong her life. Anna is, as the film points out, a "genetic savior."
All well and good, but what about poor Anna? Each time she's prodded and poked with another needle, each time she gives a little more of herself physically to her sister, she loses something. In effect, the parents are jeopardizing the life of one child possibly to extend the life of the other. Is it fair to Anna? I doubt that most reasonable parents would even consider such an option, although there is apparently precedent for the situation.
Now, young Anna resolves not to do it anymore. She's tired of trying to save her sister at the risk of her own life. Since she knows her parents won't listen to her, she decides to see a lawyer--a slick, flamboyant lawyer with the unlikely name of Campbell Alexander (Alec Baldwin)--to help her emancipate herself from her parents. All of this happens in the first fifteen minutes of the movie, and that's pretty much what the rest of it is about, with variations on the subject.
The use of a designated donor in medical procedures presents an interesting moral dilemma that might have made for an equally absorbing narrative, but that's not where the movie takes us. Instead, the movie sinks into a clichéd, sorrow-laden melodrama, artificially tugging at the heartstrings at every turn.
The director is Nick Cassavetes, who gave us an excellent tearjerker in "The Notebook." Here, he's working with inferior material that doesn't give him a chance to do much more than produce a film that's all surface and little substance. Part of the problem is that the script has so many characters in it, each of whom has only a few minutes to shine, it's hard to focus on any one of them. For instance, the movie begins with a voice-over narration by Anna. We figure it's Anna's movie. Then we get voice-overs from Kate and even from Anna and Kate's brother Jesse (Evan Ellingson), plus individual sequences featuring Sara, Campbell, and Brian. In the end, we have to wonder who this film is about, anyhow. At first, the film appears to be about young Anna and her attempt to free herself of the heinous abuses heaped upon her by her parents, especially by her mother. But then in the whole middle section the emphasis switches to the dying sister and her romance with another leukemia patient, Taylor Ambrose (Thomas Dekker). The father by this time practically disappears from the picture, as does the lawyer. It becomes all about the mother and the dying daughter. After that, the attention reverts back to Anna again. I dunno. By the time the movie is over, it has never gotten close to anyone.
Then, there are the coincidences. How convenient that the mother is a lawyer because it means she can represent her own case in court. Everybody's got something that coincidentally works to exploit the audience's compassion in one way or another. The brother is a troubled, special-education student. The lawyer has his own condition I won't mention. Even the judge (Joan Cusack) hearing the case has a sob story; she's a woman who just a few months earlier had a nervous breakdown when she lost her own twelve-year-old daughter to a drunken driver. The script will stop at nothing to yank us around.
But the thing that bothered me most, I'm sure, was the music. Every time something bad happens to somebody, which is about every two minutes, a mournful dirge plays in the background. At about the fifty-minute mark I was dreading another maudlin tune, yet I knew I had almost an hour to go.
An additional problem: You can't sympathize with the mother, who is one of the main characters. I'd throw the father in this category, too, but, as I say, he sort of disappears into the woodwork a short ways into the story. The mother is a most unsympathetic character all right: She's selfish, stubborn, and clearly in the wrong by jeopardizing the life of Anna for the sake of Kate. Yet there she is, one of the centers of the story. Are we simply to wait for her comeuppance? There has to be more to the movie than that.
"My Sister's Keeper" piles hardship upon hardship, crawling along at a leaden, depressing pace. The flashbacks get old fast, and the plot action becomes tangled to the point where just when Kate's doctor informs her and the family that she has only a short time left to live (presumably no more than a few days), Kate suddenly falls in love and begins dating and going to proms. Huh? It is a flashback sequence, but who would know, what with the filmmakers creating the transition so quickly and so clumsily that it has you scratching your head in disbelief?
The only scene in the film that generates any genuine tension is the court hearing toward the end of the film, and it lasts for all of about five minutes. Then, wouldn't you know it, even that scene cops out--not once but twice!
Admittedly, "My Sister's Keeper" may be more of a woman's film than a man's. I've mentioned that even the father diminishes in importance as the story goes on. For me, though, as a man, the film just seems to play unfairly with the viewer at every turn. If there is any theme or message involved, it gets lost amid the fraudulent attempts to empty our tear ducts. Not even the usually reliable Abigail Breslin can do much to save the situation.
New Line present the film in two screen sizes on the same side of a single DVD, one version in 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen and the other version in 1.33:1 pan-and-scan. Needless to say, since the pan-and-scan left out nearly half the original image, I opted for the widescreen. Even here, however, the picture quality is hardly more than ordinary, probably the result of squeezing the two films onto one side of a disc.
The colors are deep, I'll grant you that; but they're actually too deep at times, appearing oversaturated and unrealistic. The definition ranges from near perfect (for a standard-definition transfer) to soft, mushy, fuzzy, and indistinct, with instances of minor haloing. Facial hues, too, look unnatural most of the time, with skin tones too dark (unless all the actors had severe sunburns). Let's just say it's not a particularly pretty picture all the way around.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio might just as well have been in monaural. Although it does everything the soundtrack calls upon it to do, that isn't saying anything. It's very smooth and quiet, with practically no rear-channel activity, being almost entirely dialogue driven. The fact is, the audio probably sounds just as it did in motion-picture theater, which isn't much.
The primary bonus item is a series of additional scenes, eight of them totaling a little over sixteen minutes in non-anamorphic widescreen. Beyond that, we get access to a digital copy of the movie, Windows Media-compatible only, the offer expiring on April 16, 2010; several trailers at start-up only; twenty-seven scene selections; English and Spanish spoken languages; Spanish subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
Understand, I'm the most sentimental guy in the world. I tear up when a raindrop falls. Yet this film is so blatantly, shamelessly gushy and gooey, playing false at every move with every character, I wound up practically hating it. "My Sister's Keeper" is not a film you come away from with a shrug--you'll either love it or you'll loathe it. I tried to keep an open mind throughout, hoping something in the movie would eventually win me over. It didn't happen.