There’s crying and vomiting aplenty in “My Sister’s Keeper,” and audiences may be forgiven the urge to respond in kind. Unsubtle, uneven and undeniably effective, this take-no-prisoners cancer weepie poses a fascinating moral quandary — a girl fighting her parents for the right to control her body while her older sister wastes away from leukemia — as a mere pretext for a full-scale assault on the viewer’s tear ducts. To the extent that many will deem the assault highly successful, Warner’s “Keeper” could be a sleeper, especially as a femme-friendly alternative to the latest “Transformers.”
Adapted from Jodi Picoult’s 2004 bestseller, “My Sister’s Keeper” is the saga of the long-suffering Fitzgerald family, pivoting on a crucial moment in the lives of two sisters: teenage Kate, who was diagnosed with leukemia at an early age and has been in and out of hospitals ever since, and 11-year-old Anna, who was conceived in vitro as a perfect genetic match for Kate — a living repository of blood, bone marrow and other bodily resources.
So when Anna marches into a lawyer’s office and announces her decision to sue for “medical emancipation” — which would free her from her obligation to donate the kidney that could save Kate’s life — their parents feel understandably shocked and betrayed. Their dad, Brian (Jason Patric), takes the news better than mom Sara (Cameron Diaz), who is fiercely and overbearingly devoted to Kate’s welfare, often to the neglect of her husband, younger daughter and son Jesse (Evan Ellingson).
Writer-director Nick Cassavetes and co-scribe Jeremy Leven retain Picoult’s technique of narrating the story from multiple points of view, interwoven with flashbacks that trace Kate’s declining health and its impact on the family at every stage. While the device feels arch and clunky in its attempt to accommodate the perspectives of five characters, giving short shrift to some (the script regards Jesse with scarcely more interest than Sara does), it does reinforce the idea of the family as a fragmented unit, whose members find themselves at odds in matters of life and death.
Cassavetes was arguably well prepped for this film, having directed one crowdpleasing tearjerker (“The Notebook”) and grappled with medical ethics, sort of, in “John Q.” Yet the lack of tonal discipline evident in his past work is also present here, as the story’s stew of family angst, terminal-illness melodrama and courtroom theatrics produces a dangerously unstable mixture of moods. Early scenes bog down in shrill bickering (mostly courtesy of Diaz, using Sara’s brittle edges as an excuse to crank up the volume), chased into temporary remission by upbeat moments of family bonding.
Yet Cassavetes also is capable of a softer touch, which he demonstrates in a poignant, extended flashback to Kate’s romance with a dreamy fellow patient (Thomas Dekker). As lovely images of the past insistently tug our attention away from the present, some of the drama’s more pertinent questions — what motivates Anna’s sudden self-interest? What’s it like to live with your parents when you’re suing them? — are casually glossed over. Too much scrutiny, it turns out, would spoil the climactic twist.
It’s that calculated sense of dramatic evasion that makes “My Sister’s Keeper” feel all too convenient as it short-circuits its own philosophical/scientific provocation and instead goes for the viewer’s jugular. To that end, Cassavetes falls back on a reliable combo of heart-tugging music (either mood-setting pop tunes or Aaron Zigman’s tastefully downbeat score) and repeated shots of a bald, feeble Kate beaming angelically through her tears. In the face of such an impeccably mounted emotional onslaught, what argument can there be?
That the film does come by some of its tears honestly is a testament to the actors involved, including Patric as the selfless, quietly resilient dad; Diaz, whose perf improves in direct relation to her character’s mood; Baldwin, offering dry comic relief as Anna’s attorney; and Joan Cusack, quietly wrenching as a judge who proves sympathetic to both parties. Special mention must also be made of Vassilieva, who endures the ravages of onscreen cancer (nosebleeds, deathly pale makeup, the aforementioned vomiting) like a champ, and who as a result easily steals the film from the plucky, always engaging Breslin.
Tech credits are pro but not too polished; there’s a rough texture to Caleb Deschanel’s lensing that suits the story’s bittersweet feel. Pic makes fine use of its Southern California locations, particularly during a beachside interlude.