The Other Sister
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 1999
Stars : Juliette Lewis (Carla Tate), Diane Keaton (Elizabeth Tate), Tom Skerritt (Radley Tate), Giovanni Ribisi (Daniel McMann), Poppy Montgomery (Caroline Tate), Sarah Paulson (Heather), Linda Thorson (Drew), Joe Flanigan (Jeff), Juliet Mills (Winnie), Hector Elizondo (Ernie)
If you happen to make the unfortunate decision to see "The Other Sister," which should be subtitled "Or, How Shallow Rich People Deal With Their Mentally Retarded Daughter," do yourself the favor of leaving after the first hour. This is a film that starts off on questionable grounds, quickly reaches a low plateau of mere watchability, and then willfully plummets headlong into patent absurdity and almost offensive triviality.
"The Other Sister" tackles a subject--the life and livelihoods of the mentally challenged--in a way few other Hollywood movies do by making it the center of the story. And, for about the first fifteen minutes, it appears that the film might actually have something interesting to say about it. The film opens with Carla Tate (Juliette Lewis), a young woman in her mid-twenties finally coming home after spending ten years in a special boarding school. The reunion with her father (Tom Skerritt), a wealthy doctor, is tentative and unsure. On the plane ride home, they share a few laughs and the tension begins to ease.
But then they get home, and Carla is immediately smothered by her perfectionist mother, Elizabeth (Diane Keaton), who is determined to make up for the last decade by turning Carla into a proper young socialite with tennis lessons and etiquette tips. The lack of common ground between mother and daughter is readily apparent, and some of the scenes between Lewis and Keaton are nicely written and well acted. We get a sense that Elizabeth wants to help her daughter, but she doesn't know how because she doesn't understand Carla. Elizabeth wants Carla to be like her, which is something that will never happen.
Then, about half an hour into the movie, the real subject surfaces: romance. Carla meets Daniel McMann (Giovanni Ribisi), a mentally challenged young man who she meets at the community polytechnic college where she's taking computer classes in an effort to be more independent. Carla and Daniel start off as friends, but after a viewing of "The Graduate," he asks her to be his girlfriend. She accepts, and it isn't long before they are venturing into physical intimacy, helped along the way by a copy of "The Joy of Sex."
Even here, in this decidedly delicate area, "The Other Sister" isn't all that bad. However, it is right about this time that movie starts to loose its footing, as co-writer/director Garry Marshall ("Pretty Woman") begins to alternate sporadically between heavy-lidded sentiment and goofy physical comedy. Any sense of realism, any notion of how these people might really live their lives, is thrown to the wind as Marshall lays it on thicker and heavier. The movie comes to pieces in a simply awful scene at a dinner party where Daniel gets drunk on 110-proof liqueur, takes over the microphone on stage where someone had been giving a toast, and proceeds to confess his love for Carla and tell the rest of the audience that they "did it." This turns the whole party upside down, and it ends in a screeching, nerve-ripping shouting match that involves just about every major character.
If you took my advice in the first paragraph, you will have left by this point. But, if you decide to stick around, you will be treated to the worst the movie has to offer, including a ludicrous "rescue" sequence that is intended to be an homage to "The Graduate," complete with the Lemonheads' 1991 cover of Simon & Garfunkel's "Mrs. Robinson" on the soundtrack. This culminates in an atrocious scene at the wedding of Carla's older sister, where Daniel gets her attention by lobbing marshmallows from the balcony onto the ceremony. And it only gets worse from there, as Carla and her mother engage in yet another screaming match, this one on a golf course.
"The Other Sister" is a decidedly confused movie, and I think it stems from Marshall's misdirected belief--firmly rooted in his successful bid to tell a Cinderella story with a prostitute in "Pretty Woman," no doubt--that he can make any subject matter work as a gushy romantic comedy. You would think he had learned his lesson with "Exit to Eden" (1994), in which he tried to make a comedy out of S&M, but apparently that movie's abysmal failure was lost on him. In fact, the screenplay for "The Other Sister" was co-written by Marshall and his "Exit to Eden" co-scenarist, Bob Brunner.
The title alone is misleading as to the movie's actual subject matter. Identifying Carla as "The Other Sister" seems to suggest that there is something different and notable about her two older sisters and how they relate to the Tate family; but, in fact, they are one-dimensional background figures who barely register except in terms of their shortcomings. The middle sister, Caroline (Poppy Montgomery) is an unimaginative flake whose wedding is interrupted by Daniel's marshmallow-throwing; the oldest sister, Heather (Sarah Paulson), is described by Elizabeth as "a gay workaholic."
In fact, Elizabeth doesn't seem to like any of her daughters, which removes any dramatic uniqueness from her inability to deal with Carla. Why shouldn't she have problems with Carla when she has problems with her other two daughters, her husband, even the doctor at Carla's school? She proves her shallow materialism by labeling Caroline an "underachiever" because she wants to teach elementary school, and she displays her hypocrisy not accepting Heather's lesbianism even though she supports gay rights. The father reminds her that at least their children aren't serial killers or Democrats (whatever that means), but it's all to no avail. Keaton's character is a truly dislikable person whose unsurprising 180-degree reversal in the last five minutes is wholly unconvincing.
In terms of acting, both Juliette Lewis and Giovanni Ribisi (last seen in "Saving Private Ryan") are convincing in their physical mannerisms and vocal inflections. They also manage to give their characters a few shreds of subtlety, although all of it is lost by the time the movie passes the dreaded two-hour mark. It doesn't sound nice to say, but Lewis' Carla becomes quite irritating by the final half hour. She is intended to be strong and determined because she wants to live on her own and marry Daniel, but she comes off as shrill and annoying after more than two hours. Even though Keaton turns the mother into an icily shallow social climber, you can't help but feel for her when Carla goes into yet another one of her temper tantrums.
What's most unfortunate about "The Other Sister" is that it shows a major Hollywood production is seemingly incapable of dealing with delicate subject matter like mental retardation. There have been successful depictions of characters with mental handicaps, most notably Leonardo DiCaprio's Oscar-nominated performance in the infinitely superior "What's Eating Gilbert Grape" (1993), a movie that truly understands its characters and how they would relate to each other. The real problem with "The Other Sister" is that Marshall and Co. aren't really interested in exploring the ramifications of mental retardation in modern society or even specifically within the Tate family. Instead, they use it is as a gimmick to put a "new" twist on old romantic material, a truly disingenuous gesture.
©1999 James Kendrick