Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, Rebecca Wells’ best-selling novel of a lifelong friendship among four Louisiana women and its effect on the adult daughter of one of them, is one of those books women clutch to their hearts with both hands, relishing every paragraph. The idea of turning it over to Callie Khouri, the writer of 1991’s Thelma and Louise, to write and direct the movie version must have looked good on paper. But Khouri has only written one movie since Thelma and Louise, the amiable Julia Roberts dud Something to Talk About in 1995, and she’s never directed a movie at all, much less one spanning 60 years with dozens of characters. Wells’ book would be a challenge for any writer/director, the more so since the film includes elements of Wells’ first novel, Little Altars Everywhere. As it happens, Khouri loses control of the story almost immediately, and the movie breaks down into a mélange of individual scenes—though some of them are pretty good.
The Ya-Yas, as the four aging belles call themselves, are Vivi (Ellen Burstyn), Caro (Maggie Smith), Teensy (Fionnula Flanagan) and Necie (Shirley Knight). What sets the story in motion is the Broadway success of Vivi’s daughter Siddalee, played by Sandra Bullock. One of the movie’s messy details is the exact nature of Sidda’s success; in the book, Sidda is a director, but the film seems to suggest she’s a playwright. At any rate, in an interview in Time magazine, Sidda makes some careless remarks about her mother. The reporter pounces, portraying Vivi as a drunken child abuser. Vivi flies into a rage and disowns her daughter. Khouri shows this in an amusing montage of Fed-Ex envelopes: Vivi sending Sidda’s torn-up photographs, Sidda sending Vivi’s shredded tickets to her play. To patch things up, the other Ya-Yas fly to New York, slip Sidda a mickey, and kidnap her back to Louisiana, where they show her the Ya-Ya scrapbook to help her understand her mother.
This is where the movie begins to fall apart. Sidda peruses the scrapbook, bringing on a succession of flashbacks through Vivi’s life, with Vivi played as a child by Caitlin Wachs and as a young adult by Ashley Judd. But the scenes from the past seem randomly chosen, and Khouri never makes sense of the chronology. We see Vivi at 11 or 12 in 1939 going to the premiere of Gone With the Wind, then two years later she’s about 18, seeing her lover off to World War II. Sidda looks 10 in 1958 (played by Allison Bertolino) and about 30 (Bullock) in 2002. Worse yet, the flashback versions of the Ya-Yas, who supposedly have such a bond with Vivi, fail to make any impression at all—we can’t tell which one grows up to be Maggie Smith, which one Shirley Knight, and so on.
This means that the very point of Wells’ book—the growth and deepening of womanly strength and wisdom over decades, and the conferring of it onto the next generation—gets completely lost while Khouri fumbles with five time periods and three different casts. Khouri presumes on the affections of the book’s admirers, counting on them to fill in the blanks, concentrating on individual scenes while failing to develop the through-line. And the movie’s great secret, which is supposed to explain to Sidda everything about her childhood, is an anticlimactic, is-that-all-there-is moment that hardly seems waiting for.
Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood works best on a scene-by-scene level. Khouri gives showcase moments to all her actresses, to compensate for the fact that many of them never have scenes together. Sandra Bullock, Ashley Judd, Maggie Smith, Fionnula Flanagan and Ellen Burstyn have scenes where their relish in the moment is palpable (for that matter, so do the two token males—James Garner as Sidda’s father and Angus MacFadyen as her fiancé), and enough flavor of Wells’ book comes through to satisfy her devoted readers.
Filming even one of Rebecca Wells’ books—much less two of them—would be a huge challenge. Callie Khouri never quite rises to it, but she brings a fine cast together and gets them to give it their best shot. That’s certainly something.