July 2, 2009

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My Sister’s Keeper (PG-13)
Jodi Picoult dares you not to use the whole box of Kleenex for My Sister’s Keeper, a grand weepy about sisters and cancer and general sadness based on Picoult’s book of the same name.

Anna (Abigail Breslin) was meant to be a miracle baby — a baby who would was genetically engineered to provide a miracle cure for her older sister Kate (Sofia Vassilieva), who has had leukemia since she was a small child. Though Kate’s brother Jesse (Evan Ellingson) didn’t have the right bone marrow, etc., to save his sister, a doctor told Kate’s parents, Sara (Cameron Diaz) and Brian (Jason Patric), that a test tube baby would have cord blood, marrow and more to offer. And now that Anna is 11, what she can offer includes a kidney — a kidney that represents the only hope for life for the 15-ish Kate. But Anna says she doesn’t want to give up a kidney and spend her life being careful, not participating in sports and not being able to get pregnant. Her mother Sara, single-minded in her insistence that Kate must survive at all costs, is having none of this. So Anna goes to Campbell Alexander (Alec Baldwin), a lawyer who she wants to secure her medical emancipation from her parents, allowing her to choose what to do with her body and all its parts.

Though the movie most frequently circles back to Anna and her voiceovers, pretty much everybody gets a voiceover here — this is what I feel, this is what I think, this is what Kate’s cancer means to me. It’s a lot of voiceover and if the movie had pared it back some (maybe knocking back by at least two the number of characters getting to ruminate at us) I think it would have been better served. The brother Jesse feels like a vestigial character — somebody so big in the book that he still has a spot in the movie even though he seems underdeveloped here. And while Breslin is the star, Vassilieva has the more interesting character (she is, after all, both potentially terminally ill and a teenage girl who is probably moved to her most violent tears over a boy). The movie’s strange approach to its focus — seemingly elevating supporting characters to main characters and giving everyone narration — spreads the sad around but doesn’t let us get to know any one character all that well. I’m sure a lot was pared down from the book to get the movie. Another go with the editing pen could have removed some of the unnecessary largeness that makes the story soapier than it needs to be.

Of course with health problems aplenty (not just Kate) and dead children (again, not just potentially Kate) this movie is already overflowing with extravagant mournfulness. This is most assuredly a weepy and it pulls out every device to try to get you to cry — not the most genuine thing a movie could do but if you need a good cry, here’s your waterworks inducer.

And the movie seemed to pick the most tear-jerking-ist actors. Diaz, Breslin, Vassilieva and even Patric do deep sadness with aplomb while Baldwin and Joan Cusack (as the judge who hears Anna’s case) add graceful notes of woe. No one person is over the top but the combined force of all this nose-blowing and eye-wiping does tip the movie into a land where the Sad becomes bigger than the Story. (However, Baldwin’s character, though the very picture of sympathy, is still Jack Donaghy-slick, with perfect 1950s hair and clothes that beg to be called dapper. There is even a completely gratuitous shot of him slow-mo-ing away in a convertible, as if he were selling it with no money down and no interest for six months. It’s like the movie interrupted all its sadness just to remind us that, officially, Alec Baldwin is a Handsome Man.)

I am not one looking for “a good cry” — during this rainy, financially stressful summer I’ll take dumb, funny and explodey (as evidenced by the unnatural degree to which I liked Transformers and Year One) over weepy any day. But for those looking for a little emotional whiz-bang, My Sister’s Keeper does offer you all the opportunities for whimpering, sobbing and fighting-back-the-single tear that you could possibly want, with better-quality acting than you’d find in your average Lifetime movie. C+

Rated PG-13 for mature thematic content, some disturbing images, sensuality, language and brief teen drinking. Directed by Nick Cassavetes and written by Jeremy Leven and Nick Cassavetes (from a novel by Jodi Picoult), My Sister’s Keeper is an hour and 46 minutes long and is distributed in wide release by Warner Bros.