My Sister’s Keeper – 2 & ½ popcorns

by Michael S. Goldberger, film critic

Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen. That is, unless they’ve seen director Nick Cassavetes’s “My Sister’s Keeper.” It’s not exactly the feel-good film you’ve been seeking. But if it’s a first-class, cathartic cry you’re after, be assured the adaptation of Jodi Picoult’s novel has a license to sadden. Even strapping he-men will bawl. Trust me.

Of course one isn’t just shedding tears for teenager Kate Fitzgerald (Sofia Vassilieva), the perilously ill leukemic, or her careworn family. Nor are we solely submerged in the touching plight of her sister Anna (Abigail Breslin), the boutique kid expressly conceived to supply older sis with spare parts. There’s more, and it’s the more that makes it work.

But first, Anna does draw us into the tale. It is whimsically intriguing when the spunky eleven-year-old waltzes uninvited into the inner sanctum of major legal honcho Campbell Alexander, splendidly played by Alec Baldwin. She has $700 and wants medical emancipation from her parents. The good counselor smells precedent.

Quite coincidentally, Kate’s mom, Sara (Cameron Diaz), was a practicing attorney until she decided to devote her entire being to the role of lifesaver. Thus, after ascertaining that her youngest is dead serious, the awkward legal battle ensues…plaintiff and attorney for the defense living under the same roof, and otherwise trying to maintain family harmony.

Indeed, there’s no denying the feeling of manipulation. The technique is old, and Mr. Cassavetes is cognizant of which buttons to push for the desired, empathetic result. Yet, because the story itself is woven with due integrity and not without its absorbing pull, we grant the director permission to tug at our heartstrings. We suspect it’s for a good cause.

True enough, there are the requisite rushes to the emergency room, perfunctory domestic squabbles and an obligatory appreciation of how the courts increasingly invade our day-to-day affairs. Yet there is also what we generally ask of art when we plunk down the bucks: a look-see at our foibles, follies and fortitude.

You see, for all the sci-fi conjecture about parallel universes, fact is the concept has been up and running ever since Oog came back to the cave and told his version of how he confronted the mastodon. There is art and there is reality. And each borrows from the other in a hyperkinetic love affair that adds up to the life experience.

And, unless we are the sort of ne’er-do-wells who thrive on mendacity, we want our lives to be true, noble and good. We want to be heroic and to know what’s important in this infinitesimally rare opportunity of existence we’ve been granted. Well, in-between its weepy, calculating tactics, “My Sister’s Keeper” manages to acknowledge that sublimity.

While a goodly share of the dramatics plays a la soap opera, there are enough genuine moments to strike a chord of realization in us. For sure it gets heavy. But Mr. Cassavetes knows not to turn it into a dirge, applying comedy relief or a segue each time it seems total despair might encroach. Ultimately, the tragic tale is about the human spirit.

Helping analyze that commodity, all the youngsters are great. Though roles considered gimmicky are usually shunned at Oscar time, Sofia Vassilieva’s brave new Camille won’t be so easily dismissed. Miss Breslin is credible as the poked, prodded and marrow-drained little sis who lawyers-up. And Evan Ellingson adeptly creates the “other child.”

It’s the parents who are troubling. Certainly Cameron Diaz gives it the old college try as Sara. But the naturalness so winning in her comic portrayals gives way to a self-conscious, see-through look at the serious gears turning. And while probably no fault of his own, Jason Patric as the dad never reaches beyond two dimensions.

He is Brian Fitzgerald, a nice enough, semi-willing accomplice to Sara’s full-court abrogation of everything but Kate’s fate. What confounds us, though, is how he manages on a fireman’s salary. It’s alluded that his people have money, but we never see them fork it over. OK, so he has good benefits. But who’s paying the bills?

Other everyday, real-life matters go by the wayside, too. However, Miss Vassilieva’s Kate sees to it that we’re not given short shrift when it comes to the icky, hospital and sickness stuff. The heartrending divulgences are of the type that can fell the sturdiest resolves and make one appreciative of the good health and fortune they hopefully enjoy.

But for all the uplifting trappings and the surprise twist that earn it respectability, this is a bona fide sob fest. Women will make no fuss, but merely estimate how many boxes of tissues they’ll need. Men, on the other hand, who accompany them to see “My Sister’s Keeper,” may want to practice faking like they have cinders stuck in their peepers.

“My Sister’s Keeper,” rated PG-13, is a New Line Cinema release directed by Nick Cassavetes and stars Sofia Vassilieva, Abigail Breslin and Cameron Diaz. Running time: 109 minutes

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