You’ve never seen cheap sentiment look prettier than it does in My Sister’s Keeper, the soft-focused weepie adapted from the bestselling novel from Jodi Picoult. Picoult never met a three-hankie final act she didn’t like, and the minute Nick Cassavetes (The Notebook) agreed to helm the big-screen version, My Sister’s Keeper went from an ordinary chick flick to something like a Michael Bay movie drunk on estrogen — instead of beautiful, perfectly timed explosions, you get impossibly dramatic situations, anguished confrontations, and the terrified screams of a family being torn apart by forces beyond its control. All things considered, I’m really not sure which filmmaking method is more cynical, but if I had to choose, I guess I’d rather watch My Sister’s Keeper than Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, if only because Keeper has Joan Cusack.
Actually, that’s unnecessarily flip; the truth is that no matter how crass Picoult’s novel might have been, Cassavetes knows how to wring devastatingly believable performances out of his actors, and he had a wonderful cast to work with here. In lesser hands, this would have been sub-Lifetime stuff: The story of parents faced with the unthinkable grief of an infant daughter with leukemia…who decide to conceive again so they’ll have a built-in organ donor for their older child! Only then, the younger daughter gets old enough to think for herself, and decides to sue for medical emancipation…even though her sister will surely die! Yes, My Sister’s Keeper combines the two movie locations — courtrooms and hospitals — certain to reduce sensitive viewers to senseless blubbering. See what I mean?
For the record, I didn’t shed any tears during My Sister’s Keeper — but I might have, if only the storyline wasn’t so offensively, over-the-top manipulative, and if only Cassavetes had trusted his cast to get its Kleenex-pimping point across instead of larding the soundtrack with thuddingly obvious stuff like Greg Laswell’s mopey cover of “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” or, God help me, Edwina Hayes’ cover of Randy Newman’s “Feels Like Home.” No bets are hedged and no opportunity for melodrama is left untaken; if the movie has a chance to beat you over the head, it will.
Which is a shame, because the actors Cassavetes assembled don’t seem to have gotten the memo; they all turn in marvelously subtle performances that come damn close to saving this sodden mess of a movie, including Cameron Diaz. I’ve never thought much of Diaz — well, except for the 90 minutes I spent watching The Mask, and that had nothing to do with her acting — but she’s sort of a revelation here, taking the thankless role of the girls’ hellbent mother and infusing it with layers of real humanity. Her character is the nominal villain of the story, and to a certain extent, My Sister’s Keeper hinges on you rooting against her — but Diaz never lets you forget the torment that burns beneath all that scenery-chewing rage. (She is, however, outclassed by Cusack, who takes her brief appearance and turns it into a crash course in devastating acting; in one scene, she says more with a single, drawn-out look than many actors will say with a lifetime of work.)
Some Picoult fans freaked out because Cassavetes’ Keeper didn’t use the book’s ending, but that’s because Jodi Picoult readers are sadomasochists; the book’s final twist is a giant literary middle finger, and the mini-uproar over its disappearance here offers compelling evidence that some women will buy anything as long as it makes them cry. Trust me, screenwriter Jeremy Leven did viewers a favor by junking it — it’s a move that suggests he and Cassavetes saw the germ of a really moving story in the midst of the book’s sniggering hackery, but they knew they couldn’t deviate too much from the source material, and they had to save their changes for where they counted the most.
All my griping aside, pretty much every movie is manipulative, and if you’re watching My Sister’s Keeper, you’re probably just looking to be pointed in the direction of a good cry — and you won’t much care how obviously the movie goes about its business. For what it is, it’s fine; what’s frustrating, though, is how much better it could have been. Train a critical eye on all these gorgeous shots unfolding on your screen, marvel at the stellar performances the film probably didn’t deserve, and see if you don’t agree.
The My Sister’s Keeper Blu-ray takes full advantage of Caleb Deschanel’s breathtakingly lovely cinematography, bringing all the depth and clarity out of the movie’s warm glow. Insofar as you can say this about any movie whose plot doesn’t include laser guns or some type of interstellar warfare, it really does look pretty incredible in hi-def. The extras are disappointingly slim — 15 minutes of extra footage and a featurette that takes you up close and personal with the unctuous Picoult — but Amazon’s selling it for $19.99 as of this writing, which makes it a pretty excellent gift for the Blu-ray-owning moms of the world this holiday season. (It’s also available on DVD and Video on Demand.)
[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/EiOWevDj1mw" width="600" height="344" allowfullscreen="true" fvars="fs=1" /]