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The Other Sister

Review by Elias Savada
Posted 26 February 1999

  Directed by Garry Marshall.

Starring Juliette Lewis, Diane Keaton,
Tom Skerritt, Giovanni Ribisi, Poppy Montgomery,
Sarah Paulson, Linda Thorson, Joe Flanigan,
Juliet Mills, Hope Alexander-Willis,
Harvey Miller, and Hector Elizondo.

Screenplay by Garry Marshall and Bob Brunner.

The best laid plans often go awry. A fitting tagline you won’t see in an ads for this dreary, laborious effort. Director and co-writer (with Exit to Eden’s Bob Brunner) Garry Marshall may have brought prostitution and terminal illness to the masses with Pretty Woman and Beaches, but lightning won’t strike again in this facile attempt to tell a honestly heart-warming story of a mentally challenged child/woman caught in the hive of a dysfunctional waspy family setting. It’s as dull as a butter knife and slowed to interminable mediocrity (think of swimming in a pool of molasses), and inadvertently brings to mind the title of Marshall’s autobiography: "Wake Me When It’s Funny."

Despite the high-priced talent associated with this endeavor, it’s still a one-dimensional struggle, centering around the young twenty-something Carla Tate (Juliette Lewis) and her ongoing battles with a over-protective (to put it mildly) mother Elizabeth, a despotic queen of the household over-played to the hilt by Diane Keaton (think Joan Crawford doing Mommie Dearest). Tom Skerritt plays the reformed alcoholic, soft-spoken, dare I say henpecked, husband to the shrew, earning the endearing sympathy of Carla’s other sisters, Caroline and Heather, one soon to be wed and the other in a lesbian relationship that mom refuses to acknowledge. Poppy Montgomery, who made her feature film debut in last year’s dreadfully bad Dead Man on Campus, and Sarah Paulson, with some movies-of-the-week experience, perform admirably in support of their struggling sibling. Giovanni Ribisi, developing a good reputation on the big screen (Saving Private Ryan) and small (as the recurring Frank Jr. on "Friends") puts in a good spin here as Danny McMahon, Carla’s similarly-challenged friend and budding love interest. The acclaimed Juliet Mills plays the "understanding" housekeeper in a throw-away part that belittles her larger, previous roles. And Chicago Hope’s Hector Elizondo provides an amusing, albeit miniscule, spark as Danny’s downstairs neighbor and surrogate father.

The cast holds its own among roles that define stereotypical convention, but the film really bogs down in its own simplistic morass, with Marshall snipping the feature into 3-5 minutes riffs, perhaps the director’s misbegotten belief that the story could best be told in sitcom mini-bytes strung together in a seemingly endless thread. I half expected to see those inter-titles on screen that break up Frasier. Instead, its "Carla as a child displaying non-social behavior at the dining table," followed by "A determined Carla, ten years later, graduating from a special boarding school," then "Carla moves home to posh upper-class parental domicile," after which we have "Carla flees the queen’s palace," "Carla enrolls on vocational school," etc., etc., etc. for 130 minutes, over-amplifying platitudes as the prodigal daughter gets her own apartment and begins to test the waters of her own sexuality, despite cold-as-ice mom’s constant baiting. The few morsels of humor (all available in the film’s trailer) fail to break up the tedium. The first attempt at cross-cutting to enliven the film (blatantly borrowed from and used as an oafish ode to The Graduate), comes with just 20 minutes to go. Too little, too late.

All things being proper at the Tate household, poor Carla meets her match amid the demands of her mother. Marshall hammers this taskmaster theme to death throughout the film, as best emphasized an early scene of Carla battling a mechanical tennis ball machine on the family’s court, despite the poor creature’s pleadings. Not only is Carla smothered, but the unfortunate viewer is as well. Despite his and the producers’ best intentions, it’s the film and its underpinnings that are handicapped. More memorable attempts that have succeeded are the Oscar winning Rain Man and Sling Blade, as well as What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? (Leonardo Di Caprio in a very believable role and also featuring an immensely more enjoyable performance from Juliette Lewis) and David and Lisa, an award-winning film nearly four decades old. Against these classics, The Other Sister will fall to the bottom of its own mawkish heap, covered in embarrassing cliches and excruciating cuteness.

The film’s final moments showcase mother and daughter hissing off at their cozy Sutter Hills Country Club one sun-filled afternoon. I haven’t played golf in 30 years, but on any given day (a weekend no less!), what groundskeeper in his/her right mind (and one who wants to keep his job) is going to turn on the sprinklers when the patricians are out on the back nine?

Dr. Tate, admitting to being sober 8 years and 4 months at one point in the film, would have been better off taking a sip, gathering up the remnants of his courage, and just up and leaving the bitch who shares his castle. That’s pretty much what I suggest anyone stuck in the audience watching this somber, antiseptic effort. Pick up your coat and high tail it back home.

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