Friday, June 26, 2009

A law suit, leukemia and lots of tears

"My Sister's Keeper" raises a powerful question but cops out before providing an answer. Although parts of this weepie -- those dealing with a young woman dying of cancer -- put a lump in my throat, the movie proved intellectually unsatisfying. This is not a small matter because the best movies allow the head and heart to work in tandem.

Director Nick Cassavetes, adapting a 2004 bestseller by Jodi Picoult and working from a script he co-wrote with Jeremy Leven, tries to tell too many stories when one would have sufficed. Cassavetes' soft-focus approach to narrative echoes throughout, as the movie offers shifting points of view. At various times, each member of the Fitzgerald family offers voice-over guidance.

For me, the most intriguing part of the story involves a suit brought by 11-year-old Anna Fitzgerald (Abigail Breslin) against her parents. Anna contacts a lawyer (Alec Baldwin) she's seen on TV: She wants "medical emancipation" from her parents. Breslin's Anna is a donor child, a kid conceived so that her parents might find a way to help keep her older sister Kate (Sofia Vassileva) alive. For years, Anna's body has been supplying Kate with organic material vital to her survival.

When the movie opens, Kate -- now a teen-ager -- needs a kidney transplant, but Anna finally has decided to draw a line in the sand. She's tired of being subjected to painful medical procedures that may threaten the quality of her future.

In some ways, the movie's most interesting character is Sara Fitzgerald (Cameron Diaz), a stubborn mother who presides over her oldest daughter's illness with the ferocity of a warrior. It's not that Sara doesn't love Anna; it's just that she can't let go of Kate. Diaz gives her best performance in some time; she's playing a mom who has allowed tunnel vision to blind her to what may be inevitable, and Diaz seems to understand that Sara's determination teeters on -- and perhaps falls over -- the edge of selfishness.

The rest of the cast can't be faulted, either. Although he doesn't have enough to do, Jason Patric does fine as the father of the family Fitzgerald; Evan Ellingson proves convincing as the teen-age boy in the family, a kid whose problems have been lost in the frenzy that has developed around Kate.

For me, the movie's problems stem mostly from Cassavetes' treatment of the material. He uses flashbacks, which can be confusing until you realize that he's backtracking to fill in details about the story. He also relies on music-covered montages to do work that dramatization would have better accomplished, and he allows a piano-driven score to do too much of the movie's emotional heavy lifting.

I couldn't always buy the way the family acts in face of Anna's suit. Of course, there's bickering and argument, but Cassavetes doesn't show us the kind of deep-rooted tensions that would seem inevitable in such a situation.

Tastefully shot by master cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, "My Sister's Keeper" has the look and feel of a serious movie. But as the script's intentions became more apparent, I began to feel cheated. So, yes, I had a lump in my throat, but I also felt as if I'd been watching a movie that betrayed its own potential.

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