I'm not ashamed to say that I cry at the movies. Not frequently, but occasionally a story and its characters will grab hold of me to the extent that I'm completely caught up in the emotions and feelings being expressed. Films as disparate as John Ford's The Searchers and Wong Kar-Wai's Chungking Express have caused me to weep with joy, relief, and sorrow.
Despite a relentless barrage of scenes evidently designed with the sole goal of jerking tears, Nick Cassavetes' My Sister's Keeper did not make me cry. It is, however, one of the most glorious-looking terminal cancer pictures I've ever seen. Cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (The Black Stallion, The Natural) paints the oft-mundane proceedings in an otherworldly glow, as though the transition to the next life had already begun. That's the guiding principle of the movie as a whole; even though an inflammatory and emotionally wrenching issue serves as the linchpin for the plot, great pains are taken to soften the blows so as not to inflict lasting damage upon the viewer.
Frankly, that latter point, much more than whether I personally shed tears, is what prevents My Sister's Keeper from escaping middlebrow territory. Cameron Diaz and Jason Patric are splendidly noble as Brian and Sara Fitzgerald, whose daughter Kate (Sofia Vassilieva) is diagnosed at a young age with leukemia. Brian and Sara conceive another child with genetic modifications so she can serve as a donor to her sister. Anna (Abigail Breslin) (*) seems fine with all the body part donations until Kate's condition worsens to the point that she needs a kidney transplant. Then 11-year-old Anna marches into the office of well-known lawyer Campbell Alexander (Alec Baldwin) and demands medical emancipation from her parents.
Quicker than you can say Irreconcilable Differences, the family is thrown into further turmoil. Already stretched to the breaking point by caring for Kate over a period of years, Brian and Sara are beside themselves, not understanding why Anna has experienced a sudden change of heart, especially when she refuses to explain herself beyond a very basic case. She sounds reasonable: donating her kidney will limit what she'll be able to do in the future, and she's tired of not having control over her own body. The arguments are not without merit, but they seem to come out of nowhere, catching the rest of the family by surprise.
Sara takes it harder than Brian. She gave up a promising career as a lawyer to stay at home with Kate. As flashbacks reveal, she's steely, strong-willed, and, literally, never say die in her unflagging efforts to keep Kate alive. Yet her singular focus may have alienated her from her other children. Eldest child Jesse (Evan Ellingson) looks lost and lonely; as a boy, he was sent away for a year to try and cure his dyslexia, and scant attention appears to have been paid to him subsequently. Anna is cheerful and spunky, but complains that her feelings have never been taken into account.
Brian works as a Los Angeles firefighter, evidently giving him very good income and terrific medical benefits, since financial issues related to the extensive medical care and hospitalization are never raised. Brian seems to be more relaxed and less strident than Sara, wisecracking and playing with the kids. We never get much more than occasional peaks at their private lives as a married couple; one would imagine that having a deathly-ill child would place a huge strain on their relationship, but the cracks only show in public, which seems counterintuitive.
Brian also never questions Sara's decision to represent them in the lawsuit that attorney Alexander brings in behalf of Anna; Sara has not practiced in years and doesn't seem to have the experience or expertise needed to argue such an important case. Since finances don't seem to be an issue, why not hire a specialist?
In a similar way, director Nick Cassavetes' insistence on treacly musical montages quickly becomes wearisome. (The choice of songs, one of them being a cover of Talking Heads' "Heaven," is far too obvious.) The outcome of an all-too-perfect romance between Kate and Taylor (Thomas Dekker, from TV's The Sarah Connor Chronicles), a kind, gentle, and good-looking fellow cancer patient, seems preordained from the outset, calculated to wring pathos out of an already tragic situation; the whole relationships descends to the level of bathos because it's so unnecessary, adding little to our knowledge or understanding of Kate's character.
All the family members harbor secret fears and guilts, expressed in alternating, quietly spoken voice-overs that come and go in oddly paced, quick spurts. Presumably they're intended to offer insights from different perspectives, yet the snippets are so brief that they feel arbitrary, added to cover over narrative dead spots.
But not only immediate family members have secrets and guilty feelings. Judge De Salvo (Joan Cusack) is back on the bench after a long break to recover from the accidental death of her 12-year-old daughter; of course she identifies closely with the 11-year-old Anna. Hard-driving attorney Alexander keeps a dog, which he describes as a service animal, though he has no obvious physical disability; is he some kind of insincere charlatan, or is he hiding something? Only self-sacrificing Aunt Kelly (Heather Wahlquist) provides support without revealing any secrets.
All of these elements may have worked in the best-selling 432-page novel by Jodi Picoult that serves as the basis for the screenplay credited to Cassavetes and Jeremy Leven. In a novel, character details have room to breathe over a span of many pages. In the movie version, however, they feel shoehorned in, perhaps in an effort to be faithful to the source material. The problem is that they distract attention from the most compelling aspects of the story.
Indeed, the idea that parents might conceive children to serve as medical donors for their other children is complex, intriguing, and troubling, and deserves a more in-depth consideration than is offered here. After the issue is introduced, it's abandoned for much of the film, and then things are wrapped up in a pat, somewhat infuriating manner that I found entirely unsatisfying. It's kind of a bait-and-switch: come for a charged social issue movie, stay for an ill-fated romance / all-too-typical, well-intentioned family drama.
My Sister's Keeper feels like an uneven, somewhat soggy mix of two of the director's previous films, John Q and The Notebook. It's a disappointing step back for Cassavetes after the vim and vitality that infused his most recent effort, Alpha Dog. He displayed a somewhat lighter touch with that based-on-fact crime flick, which could have worked well with My Sister's Keeper. As it is, the film looks lovely but offers little in the way of deeper emotional truths.
(* UPDATED: Abigail Breslin's credit corrected.)