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The Baltimore Sun

The Other Sister


Friday February 26, 1999

     There are, as has often been reported, two kinds of people in the world: those who look forward eagerly to a shamelessly heart-tugging, feel-good romance between two "mentally challenged" young people, and those who, quite frankly, would rather turn the page.
     "The Other Sister," directed by that determined sentimentalist Garry Marshall, is not a film likely to bridge the gap between these two categories. While it's hard to fault the film's intentions or get too upset about how it executes them, it's even more difficult to think completely positive thoughts about a film that treats its two main characters like charming ceramic figurines, so winsome you want to chuck them under the chin, rather than as actual human beings.
     Written by Marshall & Bob Brunner, "The Other Sister" is one of a line of films that considers those with special needs to be wiser, more honest, more genuine, in fact all-around better human beings than those who do not fall into that category. While it wouldn't be accurate to call Carla Tate and Danny McMahon caricatures, the way they're portrayed runs the risk of condescending both to them and to us.
     Carla (Juliette Lewis) is a daughter of privilege whose parents, proud country-club members in the mythical Bay Area suburb of Sutter Hills, have the resources to send her to a posh special school. When the film opens, she's graduating and heading home, much to the delight of her softhearted father, Radley (Tom Skerritt).
     Carla turns out to be a very single-minded young woman, determined to live her own life and explore all her options. Her zest for living and her capabilities are so clear, only a criminally obtuse, overbearing and intrusive mother wouldn't get the message soon enough. Which is just the kind of parent the script helpfully provides.
     Elizabeth Tate (Diane Keaton) turns out to be wound as tight as the cables on the Golden Gate Bridge. She loves her daughter, but this kind of broad-strokes movie couldn't exist if she was even the slightest bit sympathetic to or understanding of her concerns.
     What the script hypothesizes instead is a mother so dense everyone in the audience can feel superior to her, a mother so oblivious to who her daughter is that she insists, in one particularly egregious scene, that Carla go one on one with a tennis machine and learn the game all well-bred young ladies know.
     Still, with the support of sisters Heather (Sarah Paulson) and Caroline (Poppy Montgomery) and Caroline's fiance, Jeff (Joe Flanigan), Carla persists in trying to be her own person. She wants to go to college, she wants her own apartment, and, completing the triptych, she wants a boyfriend.
     That would be Danny ("Saving Private Ryan's" Giovanni Ribisi), a fellow student at Bay Area Polytech. Danny has his own apartment, with kindly Vietnam vet Ernie (Marshall favorite Hector Elizondo) serving as manager; he is passionate about marching band music; and, most impressive to Carla, he even has a job making cookies for a local baker.
     Young people who are "mentally challenged" are especially difficult to portray on screen; in recent years only Leonardo DiCaprio's exceptional work in "What's Eating Gilbert Grape" was good enough to make you forget that a well-known face was in fact playing a part.
     While Lewis and Ribisi eventually win you over, both their performances are more studied and less flexible than DiCaprio's. As talented professionals, they have a good grasp on the appropriate mannerisms and verbal cadences, but we are aware more than we'd like to be that they're both acting, so to speak, to beat the band.
     More of a problem than the performances is the film's almost complete lack of spontaneity. There are warm moments, but there's almost not one that isn't oversimplified or completely schematic, from talks about sex ("I wonder who thought up sex in the first place" / "I think it was Madonna") to a dreary subplot about Elizabeth's difficulty accepting daughter Heather as a lesbian. By coddling viewers and micromanaging our responses, "The Other Sister" shows almost as little respect for the audience as Elizabeth does for her feisty, underappreciated daughter.

The Other Sister, 1999. PG-13, for thematic elements involving sex-related material. Released by Touchstone Pictures. Director Garry Marshall. Producers Mario Iscovich, Alexandra Rose. Executive producer David Hoberman. Screenplay by Garry Marshall & Bob Brunner, story by Alexandra Rose & Blair Richwood and Garry Marshall & Bob Brunner. Cinematographer Dante Spinotti. Editor Bruce Green. Costumes Gary Jones. Music Rachel Portman. Production design Stephen J. Lineweaver. Art director Clayton R. Hartley. Set decorator Jay Hart. Running time: 2 hours, 4 minutes. Juliette Lewis as Carla. Diane Keaton as Elizabeth. Tom Skerritt as Radley. Giovanni Ribisi as Danny.

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