Cameron Diaz plays Sara Fitzgerald in "My Sister's Keeper." She's a mother who has been focused for years on keeping her leukemia-stricken daughter alive. It’s a quest that’s not only taken her away from her lucrative law practice, it’s also prevented her from meeting the needs of the rest of her family. In the hands of a Susan Sarandon or Meryl Streep, Sara would have been a part filled with nuance and modulation. In the hands of Diaz, Sara is shrill, overbearing and prone to actorly histrionics. You cringe every time she appears.
Being a confirmed cynic, it was with great anticipation that I looked forward to “My Sister’s Keeper,” a kid-with-cancer tale that would surely put my rarely used tear ducts to the test.
I’m proud to report that I passed with flying colors. But I can’t take all the credit. Director Nick Cassavetes deserves props, too, for so thoroughly diluting Jodi Picoult’s source novel that even a chronic weeper will be immune to his plasticized manipulations.
No, if there are any tears to be shed they should be spilled over the missed opportunities to probe the moral, ethical and legal aspects involved in conceiving a baby for the sole purpose of supplying spare parts for a seriously ill sibling; and then have the so-called “donor child” decide at age 11 she’s not going to stand for it anymore.
Unlike his father, John, who thrived on railing against convention, Nick Cassavetes is too worried about people liking him, his film and his cast to even approach anything challenging.
He knows what the masses want and he’s all too happy to feed it to them in heavy, sugarcoated doses. It’s fluff for fluff’s sake. And it’s all part of a nefarious plot to maximize box office by minimizing intelligence.
Why give us scenes of an 11-year-old standing her ground and facing the very real possibility of being ostracized by her family when group hugs and schmaltzy musical montages are so much easier to pull off? And why give us courtroom scenes in which compelling arguments are presented for both sides of a fascinating issue when clichés and platitudes are so much more soothing to the ears?
Still, even if Cassavetes had the cajones to try to rattle his audience, he’d still be severely handicapped by the sort of mindless casting that puts a lightweight like Cameron Diaz in the pivotal role of a mother who stands to lose both of her daughters and a son to an acute case of tunnel vision.
For nearly 12 years, her Sara Fitzgerald has been focused on one thing: keeping her leukemia-stricken daughter, Kate (Sofia Vassilieva from TV’s “Medium”), alive. It’s a quest that’s not only taken her away from her lucrative law practice, it’s also prevented her from meeting the needs of her firefighter husband, Brian (Jason Patric), her teenage son, Jesse (Evan Ellingson), and her donor child, Anna (Abigail Breslin).
In the hands of a Susan Sarandon or Meryl Streep, Sara would have been a part filled with nuance and modulation. In the hands of Diaz, Sara is shrill, overbearing and prone to actorly histrionics. You cringe every time she appears.
But you cringe even more at the calculated play for tears Cassavetes lazily resorts to every time he and co-writer Jeremy Leven run out of ideas, which is often.
Most galling is their refusal to inject even a hint of darkness into their characters, or the story. Which is in direct contrast with the book, which cast Jesse as a pyromaniac and bestowed a much bleaker fate on Anna.
Yet despite its numerous flaws, “My Sister’s Keeper” is never less than watchable, thanks in part to Caleb Deschanel’s gorgeous cinematography. But most of the kudos go to Breslin, amazing as usual, as Anna; Alec Baldwin, hilarious and charismatic as Anna’s quirky lawyer, Campbell Alexander; Joan Cusack as a judge dealing with her own tragedy; and especially the little known Vassilieva as Kate.
Like a true trooper, she holds her bald head high as she is repeatedly called upon to barf, bleed and bury her pretty face behind layers of makeup that give her an eerie, deathly pall.
Vassilieva shines brightest, and so does the movie, when she and Thomas Dekker, as a fellow cancer patient, engage in a romance that stirs far more emotion than the climactic death-bed scene when one of the characters checks out – and it’s not the person readers of the book will expect to see ascending to heaven.
Even that’s a cop out, as Cassavetes flagrantly turns his back on the book’s most ironic twist by replacing it with even more schmaltz.
Surprising, given how the rest of the film is so maudlin and depressing in tone. A fun night at the movies, this is not.
It is, however, a valuable starting place for discussions about at what age a child should legally control his or her body, the ethics of genetically engineering humans and directors too chicken to test their audience’s intelligence. Now, that's something worth crying about.
Reach Al Alexander at email@example.com.
MY SISTER’S KEEPER (PG-13 for mature thematic content, some disturbing images, sensuality, language and brief teen drinking.) Cast includes Camerson Diaz, Jason Patric, Sofie Vassilieva, Abigail Breslin, Joan Cusack and Alec Baldwin. Directed by Nick Cassavetes. 2 stars out of 4.