The girls yack and yack and yack some more in "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood," a gabfest in which an estranged Southern mother and daughter sling the hash, egged on by an eccentric circle of friends.

The girls yack and yack and yack some more in “Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood,” a gabfest in which an estranged Southern mother and daughter sling the hash, egged on by an eccentric circle of friends. Based on the bestselling work of Rebecca Wells, Callie Khouri’s busy directorial debut belongs to a particular strain of down-home, over-the-top femme fiction that includes the likes of “Fried Green Tomatoes” and “Steel Magnolias,” and will therefore test the tolerance levels of many viewers, particularly men. But more than a few women will eat it up, and this Warner Bros. release makes enough emotional connections, however brazenly, to clock in as a nice middle-range summer B.O. performer upon June 7 release.

A few years ago, Shelley Winters would have killed for Ellyn Burstyn’s role as Vivi, a booze-sipping, overbearing, self-dramatizing grand dame who’s made life into Louisiana hell for her entire family but remains the most powerful personality on the horizon. Even a presence as large as Winters’ would have fit easily into the scheme of things here, as the dramatic style is one of broad gestures, knowing looks, blustery wisecracks and life-defining pronouncements such as, “When I said ‘For Better or For Worse,’ I knew it was a coin toss.”

But there must be a reason that the sort of comic caricatures of Southern womanhood as displayed here have weathered the test of time, so there may be kernels of truth buried behind all the studied glances, poses and play-acting. And if such material is tossed off with sufficient flair and brio, as it intermittently is by the largely talented cast, it’s possible to become momentarily distracted by the high melodrama of Vivi’s life and her decided mixed influence on everyone in her orbit.

Time-jumping scenario is set in motion when successful New York playwright Sidda (Sandra Bullock) delivers a few hard knocks at her mom’s mothering skills in a magazine interview, little suspecting that Vivi will retaliate by launching World War III.

Enter Vivi’s “henchmen,” the now-elderly members of the eponymous secret society, which ringleader Vivi founded some 60 years prior: Widow Necie (Shirley Knight), constant tippler Caro (Maggie Smith) and sleek Teensy (Fionnula Flanagan), the wealthiest of the bunch. Imposing trio who, for all their bickering, act as one, stage a self-styled “intervention” by kidnapping Sidda and taking her back to Louisiana with the idea of effecting a reconciliation between daughter and mother.

The point of all that follows is for Sidda to learn everything she doesn’t know about her mother, which is considerable; process also might push Sidda past the psychological/emotional barriers that have prevented her from marrying Connor (Angus MacFadyen), her b.f. of seven years and counting.

As the old biddies regale Sidda with stories and allow her to partake of their “divine secrets” via a carefully maintained scrapbook, action rewinds to their own youth, which was spent on the upper crust of Southern society and even involved a trip to the Atlanta premiere of “Gone With the Wind.”

Young Vivi (Ashley Judd) was the center of the whirlwind back then, a vivacious beauty whose life only began to go wrong when her beau Jack, Teensy’s brother, was killed in World War II. In consolation, she married eager second-best Shep, had one kid after another and finally sank into an abusive oblivion of booze-drenched disappointment with her life, a progression tolerated by her endlessly admiring husband but scarcely comprehended by her offspring.

The revelations come in carefully apportioned morsels and are at first so encumbered by a combination of aged flutterings and youthful high spirits that a quick O.D. seems imminent. Once the time-skipping settles into a rhythm, however, pic begins establishing some momentum and cinematic grace, thanks especially to John Bailey’s lustrous widescreen cinematography and the distinctive musical contributions of T Bone Burnett and David Mansfield, which serve to partially offset the pic’s gaudy trappings and the leading characters’ petulant stubbornness.

Mother and daughter are kept physically apart until the inevitable climactic reconciliation by their mutual refusal to give an inch, this despite the combined massive efforts of the three Ya-Yas, Connor and Shep, a milquetoast whom even James Garner cannot supply with any backbone.

Screenwriter Khouri clearly has worked overtime to try to make the modern story and flashbacks reinforce one another, as she pinpoints key ups and downs of Vivi and Sidda’s lifelong relationship with fluctuations in the latter’s feelings about her ability to commit to Connor. Khouri’s direction, however, is less focused, sometimes to the point of offering a stylistic correlative to the disarray of the characters’ lives.

While there are pleasures to be had from watching so many grand actresses strut their stuff, the fact is that the overriding preoccupation here rests with surface impressions rather than psychological probity. Burstyn and Bullock don’t really match up as mother and daughter, physically or temperamentally; the former has no problem with Vivi’s narcissistic histrionics, but the latter’s understated style makes her the outsider of the piece, both as character and actress. As a rich, gum-chewing matron who tools around in her canary-yellow Rolls-Royce, Flanagan is the picture’s real scene-stealer, while Smith seems uncustomarily ill at ease and Knight has little to do. Entirely convincing as the young belle of the South, Judd seems less at home trying to convey the inner demons eating Vivi alive.

Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood

Production

A Warner Bros. release presented in association with Gaylord Films of an All Girl production. Produced by Bonnie Bruckheimer, Hunt Lowry. Executive producers, Bette Midler, Mary McLaglen, E.K. Gaylord II, Lisa Stewart. Directed, written by Callie Khouri, adaptation by Mark Andrus, based on the novels "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood" and "Little Altars Everywhere" by Rebecca Wells.

Crew

Camera (CFI color, Technicolor prints; Panavision widescreen), John Bailey; editor, Andrew Marcus; music, T Bone Burnett; original score, David Mansfield, Burnett; production designer, David J. Bomba; art director, John Jensen; set designer, Rob Simons; set decorator, James Ferrell; costume designer, Gary Jones; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS/SDDS), Petur Hliddal; supervising sound editor, David Giammarco; associate producers, Scott Elias, Tom Proper; assistant director, Matthew Rowland; casting, Avy Kaufman. Reviewed at Todd-AO West, Santa Monica, April 23, 2002. (In Tribeca Film Festival -- Special Screenings.) MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 116 MIN.

With

Sidda - Sandra Bullock Vivi - Ellen Burstyn Teensy - Fionnula Flanagan Shep Walker - James Garner Buggy - Cherry Jones Younger Vivi - Ashley Judd Necie - Shirley Knight Connor - Angus MacFadyen Caro - Maggie Smith Younger Teensy - Jacqueline McKenzie Younger Caro - Katy Selverstone Younger Necie - Kiersten Warren Genevieve - Gina McKee Jack - Matthew Settle Willetta - Leslie Silva Chaney - Ron Dortch Pete Abbott - Fred Koehler Taylor Abbott - David Rasche Younger Shep Walker - David Lee Smith

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