Absence of opposites

All the great religions of the world acknowledge that human nature can contain both good and bad, dark and light, positive and negative. It’s not one or the other, but various shades of both. The variables are endless.

Zen Buddhism, which is not a religion, does its damndest to neutralise those opposites so that “oneness” can be attained. But if you fall asleep while trying to achieve that inner peace through monastic meditation, there is always someone at hand to give you a good whack with a long stick.

Nothing like a little violence to get one back on track towards enlightenment. More about this later.

The dramatisation of these opposites has flourished most in democracies like India and in the West, from the great ancient epics to the most syrupy melodramas on TV today. But always there is that tension between poles, otherwise the people tend to vote with the remote control.

All of which brings us to two very different films that ignore the above basics. The first has an unfashionably long and cute title, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, and it only gets worse from there on.

There is nothing divine about this sisterhood, except in the campest Bette Midler sense, and she happens to be one of the executive producers. Neither is there much of a sisterhood, except that four spoilt Southern brats got together one fine evening and made a Native-American pact (in the most insulting sense) to be sisters forever.

These girls have never suffered together or stabbed each other in the back that we know of, but never mind. Now they’re all in their 60s and one of them, Vivi (Ellen Burstyn) has just read that her famous playwright daughter Sidda (a very unwriterly-looking Sandra Bullock) has told a Time reporter that mama was not much of a mama.

So there you have it; it’s really a mother/daughter drama. Or comedy. Or something.

The three other “sisters” (Fionnula Flanagan, Shirley Knight and Maggie Smith, who occasionally drops her accent while clutching her oxygen tank) thus decide to tell Sidda about mama. They drug her, abduct her and about 12 hours after waking up she decides to let her lover know where she is. Meanwhile they tell her about mama.

And tell her, which necessitates flashbacks and someone playing the younger Vivi, who wanted to be famous and couldn’t deal with what life gave her: the wrong husband, three beautiful children, a mansion and some damn fine African-American servants.

Unfortunately the younger Ellen Burstyn is played by Ashley Judd, which is like expecting any actor to play the young Marlon Brando. More about that later, too. And if Vivi’s husband, as played by James Garner, is tolerance incarnate, then Sidda’s future husband is just that, too. Angus Macfadyen looks like a cross between the young Richard Burton and Rod Steiger, but minus the piss and vinegar.

Sidda would probably go for someone like her dad, and it probably makes the producers feel good that they’ve created two good men. But they’re just too good, like everyone else in this orgy of saccharine.

The only slight exceptions are Vivi, a bit of a Southern bitch with a drinking problem but a heart of gold, and her daughter, who has a commitment problem because mama was “difficult”.

Lacking any artistry to elevate it above its absence of opposites, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood is like a grille of warmed-up marshmellows: just plain icky.

On the other end of the dramatic scale we have something with a fashionably short but completely wrong title, Frailty, also with fairly big names.

It starts off with a good, ominous title sequence, and then the awkward FBI agent Wesley Doyle (Powers Boothe) arrives at his office late at night to hear what the loutish but sexy Fenton Meeks (Matthew McConaughy) has to confess about the God’s Hand killings — a much better title.

Much is made, through lighting, of Boothe’s pocked skin to tell us, or mislead us, that something about him is not quite kosher either. But Meeks’s telling of the story also necessitates a series of flashbacks, directed by and featuring Bill Paxton as a mechanic single father who has a visitation, whereafter he forces his two young sons to assist him in the gruesome murders of “sinners”.

One of those sons is played by the affecting Matt O’Leary, apparently the younger version of Meeks. Unfortunately Paxton makes the mistake of featuring himself as the central antagonist, a too-underplayed religious fanatic.

He also doesn’t give the vastly more interesting McConaughy — who may look like a model-version of Marlon Brando, but has yet to establish his own acting persona — enough screen time by far.

The soundtrack is effectively about the devil in a number of country-and-western songs, but when we discover that the only representative of good or light had died a long time ago, we are not shocked into moral sobriety — we are merely disgusted.

Oddly enough, the almost complete absence of women adds to that sense of repulsion without saving graces, and even if the idea that evil walks around in ordinary clothes is valid, using children to convey such a message neutralises any artistic or moral import the film might have had.

The dark, violent stick Frailty uses to enlighten us turns out to be made of balsa, and the stick it will therefore be hit with is the flick of a switch.

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