"The Other Sister," which stars Juliette Lewis as a mildly retarded young woman striking out on her own for the first time, elicits such wildly divergent emotions that it leaves the audience feeling drained and confused.
The movie suffers from a combination of maladies, including a strangely uneven emotional tone (It's a comedy! No, wait, it's a touching family drama! Hold on, it's a touching family dramedy!) and the questionable choice of casting Diane Keaton as an uptight Junior League type.
But more discomfitting than these quibbles is something both more profound and much more slippery, having to do with the squirm-inducing sight of two up-and-coming actors affecting speech impediments to play challenged characters. No matter how estimable the efforts, and the efforts are nothing if not estimable in "The Other Sister," they almost always betray a certain amount of condescension.
In this case, the two talents in question are Lewis, who plays a 24-year-old named Carla Tate, and Giovanni Ribisi ("Saving Private Ryan," "Friends"), as the similarly challenged young man she meets and falls in love with.
Carla has been away at school for most of her adolescence, and "The Other Sister" commences when she returns home upon graduating. Here, "home" is a palatial mansion in San Francisco, where her mother makes her look at art books and practice tennis and her father (Tom Skerritt) works on his boat in the driveway. The Tate family also includes two perkily blond sisters, one of whom is getting married.
Gratefully, "The Other Sister" doesn't take the expected road of making Carla's arrival into this picture-perfect scenario a problem. The Tates are a loving, if typically flawed family, and Carla immediately emerges as a woman who is forthright enough to convince her mother she's ready for junior college.
Indeed, one of the more refreshing elements of "The Other Sister" is that it never makes Carla's retardation the central issue, instead focusing on the universal theme of grown children forging their own identities apart from their parents' (a theme underlined by a nice subplot involving another Other sister in the Tate family).
So what's the problem?
As worthy as this story is, "The Other Sister" is not the movie to tell it. Director Garry Marshall (best known for such tame sentimentalities as "Pretty Woman" and "Beaches") sets up some solid domestic drama, especially in scenes involving Keaton and Skerritt, but then skitters over into madcap comedy, with people crashing weddings (literally) and zany golf cart chases through lawn sprinklers.
This inconsistency extends to Lewis and Ribisi, both of whom are good but begin to show the strain of their roles' nobility. Look, we're not just Gen-X neo-Method slackers, they seem to be saying, we're serious actors. Then they dress up in doggie and duckie costumes to prove how cute they are.
It's this push-and-pull of earnestness and patronization that finally makes "The Other Sister" so taxing. And, like watching Jodie Foster in "Nell," seeing Lewis and Ribisi chew a little well-intentioned scenery can't help but bring on those squirms.
You get the sense that somewhere out there, there are two very real people who could tell their own similar story much better. But without stars, sentimentality or sanitized Disney packaging, who would buy it?
'The Other Sister'
Starring Juliette Lewis, Diane Keaton, Giovanni Ribisi, Tom Skerritt
Directed by Garry Marshall
Released by Touchstone Pictures
Rated PG-13 (thematic elements involving sex-related material)
Running time: 131 minutes
Sun score: * *
Pub Date: 2/26/99