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THE OTHER SISTER

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Juliette Lewis, Diane Keaton, Tom Skerritt, Giovanni Ribisi
Director:  Garry Marshall
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  Touchstone/Buena Vista
Features:  Theatrical Trailer, 2 Music Videos
Length:  129 Minutes
Release Date:  September 7, 1999

Film *

A romantic comedy about the mentally challenged?  That’s the concept behind The Other Sister, but I just had to write it down in a sentence and study it long and hard, trying to decide if there was a way it could not seem distasteful.  The answer is no, and that’s the same answer I came up with when viewing the film.  Garry Marshall, who is Hollywood’s prince of the light headed romantic fluff comedy, really hit rock bottom when he decided to present audiences with retardation as a subject for humor.

The story involves a dysfunctional family.  How dysfunctional?  Well, the problems that complicate their lives include alcoholism, homosexuality, middle child syndrome, obsession on the parts of mothers and weak inability on the parts of fathers.  Every cliché in the book.  And that’s not even counting Carla (Lewis), the challenged daughter who has just come home after a long stay in a special school.  The mother (Keaton) couldn’t, or simply didn’t want to, deal with her growing up.  But now that Carla is an adult, she’s ready to be the mom she never was.

In a family of problems, Carla is made out to be the biggest, in several scenes designed to make the audience laugh by letting her be the butt of every joke.  One montage even features her and her mother shopping to the tune of the song, “She Drives Me Crazy”.  Laughing yet?

Eventually, Carla meets Danny (Ribisi), who is also mentally challenged.  They fall in love.  And in several scenes, they explore their newfound sexuality, naturally, without understanding it much.  They flip through The Joy of Sex and pick out their positions.  He brings home a handful of condoms, “one of them glow in the dark”.  I found it repulsive that the filmmakers thought we’d get a big kick out of their sexual awareness and confusion.

Worse still is the torrential amounts of repetition in the film, mostly involving the mother.  I’ve always loved Diane Keaton as an actress.  Here, I detested every moment she was on screen.  Every little new thing that comes up in Carla’s life subjects us to the exact same scenario.  The mother tries to talk her out of it.  She protests.  The mother caves in, but with repeated warnings.  Over and over. 

And when the movie seems to find the right note to end on (or as right as could be hoped), it doesn’t end.  It goes on for another 20 minutes.  Just so we can experience another mother/daughter confrontation, just like the six or seven we’ve already had to endure.

The problem is, most movies don’t know how to deal with the subject of the mentally retarded.  Even the most popular, Forrest Gump, uses that aspect of the character as a means to spin one tall tale after another.  Here, it’s obvious the screenwriters didn’t know the first thing about the condition.  There are many different types and causes, but none are explained here, and as such, Lewis and Ribisi seem lost most of the time, not understanding their characters as fully as they might.  Both are sweet, and have a certain charm, but are sadly so trapped by a horrible script, and nothing solid to work with, that they’re forced to bring too much ‘business’ to their roles.  As a result, the performances sometimes look more like parody than they should.

And the screenplay really is horrid.  It’s enough to make you wonder if the writers ever heard a real word of dialogue in their lives.  Nobody talks like this.  It’s either bombastic melodrama or rapier witticism.  Even the slower characters are given lines of sparking wit.

A case in point:  in a flashback sequence, we see Carla as a child.  The other kids are making fun of her and mocking her.  It’s the kind of mean thing one does when one is that immature.  Yet, for the rest of the movie, the writers ironically do the same thing.  They hold Carla and Danny up to be objects of humor.  The filmmakers are not interested in exploring their condition, or how it affects them, or how they manage to live day to day with their disability.  These characters are retarded simply so they can do and say funny things to make us laugh.  It’s rather disgusting.

If only Marshall had possessed just a little bit of faith.  If he hadn’t gone the same, tired routes with his entire body of characters.  If he could have just recognized that here and there in his picture were truly magical moments, like when the two of them watched the ending of The Graduate.  I would love to take Lewis and Ribisi, and their characters, out of this uninspired conception and into a better film,  Maybe even one where they had no script at all to work from.  They could have produced enough magic between them to transcend just about anything.  But here, there are just too many obstacles to overcome.

Video ***

This is a mostly decent transfer from the Disney studios.  It’s not anamorphic, but as far as quality goes, there are no major flaws worth noting.  I noticed no grain, compression, nicks, or scars of any kind.  Images were generally very sharp and clear, and mostly good coloring, with just a few instances where the tones seemed a little washed out or less than natural. 

Audio **1/2

The soundtrack is in 5.1, but there’s nothing apart from a few songs that will come to life dramatically in your sound system.  The dialogue is the main attraction here, and it comes across cleanly with no clarity problems.  Still, the rear stage and subwoofer are practically non-existent here, though they aren't missed much given the nature of the film.

Features **1/2

A trailer, plus music videos by Savage Garden and The Pretenders.

Summary:

I can’t remember the last time I cringed so much watching a movie.  Poor taste will do that, and The Other Sister offers the worst kind…asking you to laugh at what’s hardly funny.  This movie is simply misguided attempts at humor wrapped inside every conventional melodrama you could imagine.  The sweet enthusiasm generated by Lewis and Ribisi is winning at times, and you will like them, but it’s not enough to salvage the poor film they’re trapped in.