My Sister's Keeper is honest only about illness

Jason Patric and Cameron Diaz play parents of sick child

Eleven-year-old Anna Fitzgerald's parents didn't just plan for her—they customized her in utero, with the specific end of providing spare parts and infusions for her leukemia-sick older sister, Kate.

From a 2004 Jodi Picoult bestseller, My Sister's Keeper mashes Death Be Not Proud with Irreconcilable Differences. When Kate (Sofia Vassilieva) relapses, experiencing renal failure, Anna (Abigail Breslin), after years of marrow harvesting, defies her birthright duty to play donor and cough up a kidney. She contracts TV-spot lawyer Campbell Alexander (Alec Baldwin, possibly the only actor who doesn't cry onscreen), who agrees to help her win medical emancipation. Before mom Sara (Cameron Diaz) took a solemn oath to keep Kate alive, quitting work to scrutinize her daughter's cell count, she was a lawyer herself, setting the stage for a family catharsis in the courtroom. (The film has an odd idea of law as group therapy.)

Screenwriter Jeremy Leven and director Nick Cassavetes, who previously jackpotted with The Notebook, reunite to adapt another heartstrings molester. Afraid to jettison subplot baggage, they make space instead with corner-cutting exposition techniques—consequently, too much is done in too little depth. Key narrative information is left to voice-over. Moments of bonding that should expand characters instead compress them; in a music-video montage, cast members ham "happy"—photo-booth high jinks, a beach idyll, Kate's diner date with a fellow patient—to a soundtrack of Delilah After Dark requests. (It's interesting to contemplate that someone actually approved the inclusion of a draggy "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" cover, at a moment when the familiar lyrics could not possibly be any less applicable.)

For this tear-jerker, one Kleenex is plenty: Cameron Diaz and Jason Patric
Photo by Sidney Baldwin
For this tear-jerker, one Kleenex is plenty: Cameron Diaz and Jason Patric

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MY SISTER’S KEEPER directed by Nick Cassavetes area theaters, starts Friday

Diaz is defiantly shrill as a woman incinerated by monomaniacal love, even as the right thing to do becomes increasingly obvious to her husband (Jason Patric), to everyone else onscreen, and to everyone in the theater. Cassavetes père might have approved. Meanwhile, Evan Ellingson, as the overlooked oldest Fitzgerald kid, is given little to do save look pained in the few digressive scenes he's the center of, as if holding in a big third-act revelation that will erase any last trace of moral ambiguity. (He's always taking the bus to Sunset Boulevard and wandering around neon after-hours; I thought the twist would be that he was hustling.)

My Sister's Keeper is extraordinarily explicit in showing the effects of disease and what is involved in caring for the sick. We see gory hemorrhages, chemo-induced heavings, and messed plastic sheets. As Kate weakens, her translucent skin darkens and discolors, and her teeth go brittle and loose. You don't usually see this unblinking attention to the progress of physical decay in a PG-13 wide-release movie, and to the degree that it represents a real aspect of human experience generally curtained out of sight, it is, in the language of movie people, a brave decision. But some of the most moving agonies in films have been accomplished through the phony shorthand of sweaty brow, limp hand, or a dribble of syrup from the corner of the mouth—which is to say, such makeup-department realism alone can't redeem the dramatic fallacies surrounding it.

Though cursed with the susceptible sentimentality common to drunks and childless Hummel collectors, I was unmoved by My Sister's Keeper. The subject is the saddest imaginable, a young girl letting go of everything—but for that to mean anything, the drama needs to suggest life beyond a scrapbook of misty, watercolored memories, something to hint at Our Town's "Oh, Earth, you're too wonderful for anybody to realize you." That may be asking a lot of a weepie, but this much less is emotional ipecac.

 
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