Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Georgia Rule / **½ (R)

Rachel: Lindsay Lohan
Georgia: Jane Fonda
Lilly: Felicity Huffman
Simon: Dermot Mulroney
Harlan: Garrett Hedlund
Arnold: Cary Elwes

Universal Pictures presents a film directed by Garry Marshall. Written by Mark Andrus. Running time: 113 min. Rated R (for sexual content and some language).

As the Internet has become such a daily part of everyone’s lives and allowed more and more people a voice for their opinions, the importance of critics has become increasingly questioned. While most people stick to what they are familiar with, both in their viewing choices and their opinions, the best critics are open to all choices. The critic is not there just to shower praise upon what is exceptional and deride the vulgar and sub par; the role of the critic is more involved than that. Most films fall into that wide gray area between the exceptionally good and the unbelievably bad. It’s the critic’s job to act as a guide to films that will interest the reader and an educator on what is good and bad in film.

I went into “Georgia Rule” with low expectations, but it was Mother’s Day and my wife had first choice. My apprehensions were based mostly upon the advertising campaign, which suggested a film about a wild child, her stressed mother, and the grandmother who’s controlling nature is the root of all the family’s problems. The ads gave the impression that it would be a generational comedy, with each woman’s eccentricities being ridiculed until that enlightened moment when they realized how good their lives were because of each other’s influence. The movie I saw, however, was an entirely different experience. Not only was this not how events unfolded in “Georgia Rule”, but the title itself may be the biggest promotional miscue of this surprisingly emotional look into the misinterpretations of family and the ways family express love toward each other.

Lindsay Lohan (“A Prairie Home Companion”) plays Rachel, the daughter who has been sentenced by her mother to spend her last summer before college with her grandmother, Georgia. Lilly, Rachel’s mother, despises Georgia for her unbending adherence to the rules by which she lives her life. “Dinner is at six o’clock every night. No exceptions.” If you miss it, you can’t eat until morning. Despite her reservations about her mother, Lilly feels this is her last ditch effort to change Rachel’s wild ways.

Georgia lives in Hull, Idaho, a backwater community that is a far cry from the party life Rachel is used to in L.A. Like any city girl fish-out-of-water story, we’re assaulted with the shocking “realities” of country living. The local vet, who also happens to be the best catch in town, sees human patients along with their pets. The hunk that Rachel falls for happens to be a Mormon with a girlfriend that is far less experienced in sexual matters than Rachel is accustomed. And everyone in town waves hello. (That last one is actually pretty universally true about small communities.)

The first half hour of the film pretty much runs the normal course, establishing typical characters, stock settings and conventional subjects. Then something happens, which I won’t reveal here, that changes the entire direction of the movie. Suddenly this innocent comedy of manners becomes a serious drama involving manipulation, sex and an understanding of truth versus fiction. I felt like I was watching a completely different movie; it became staggeringly engaging and even offered reasonable explanations for the typical caricatures to which we’d been introduced.

The movie evolved from a paint-by-numbers set into a wonderful vehicle for the three main actors. Lohan, whose character’s actions have been compared to her own recent personal misfortunes, proves that, if nothing else, she can play herself very well. I like that director Garry Marshall (“Pretty Woman”) does not allow any sympathy for her character until her possible motivations are revealed. Lohan’s performance invites the audience to hate her to the point that, when possible secrets are revealed, we feel sorry for how we felt about her.

Felicity Huffman, as Lilly, also offers the audience little room to sympathize with a mother who struggles with alcohol addiction and seems unable to cope with simple problems. Her performance lacks many of the subtleties of her Oscar nominated turn as a transsexual in “Transamerica”, but she does a wonderful job of keeping the audience with her as she’s pulled in two different directions.

Georgia does not present Jane Fonda (“Coming Home”) with the pivotal role that the title of the film suggests, but she is the anchoring force in the film. While she has much to do in the film’s opening passages, by the end, she almost gets lost in the shuffle. She is never fully connected to the events involving the men in the story. I would have liked to know more about how she felt about the vet (Dermot Mulroney, “About Schmidt”), the Mormon hunk (Garrett Hedlund, “Friday Night Lights”) and Rachel’s stepfather, Arnold (Cary Elwes, “The Princess Bride”). These men are very important in her daughter’s and granddaughter’s lives. She has strong opinions about them but they are never fully articulated.

As much as I’d really like to, “Georgia Rule” is ultimately too flawed for me to recommend to general audiences. Its limitations are fairly closely related to its flawed ad campaign. Marshall spends too much time exploiting the “aw-shucks!” nature of small town life. And I don’t think even a big city could produce the extravagant variety of animal life these people bring into the vet’s office. As for Georgia’s titular “rules”, I suppose they allow for an efficient way to introduce the three different generations of women, but they have very little to do with the rest of the film’s true purpose.

I also get the impression that Marshall never came to terms with the film’s ‘R’ rating. Considering how Lohan’s sexual identity plays so heavily into the plot’s developments, I can’t imagine he could have expected anything different. However, Marshall often treats the moments of sexuality with a ‘PG-13’ mentality, as if there are some taboos that he is unwilling to confront directly. This lack of commitment to the film’s subject matter is its true failing. What could have been a wonderful study in the differences and connections between female generations is ruined by the distraction of unnecessary comedic elements and a timid approach to the sexuality of a character that seems to exist primarily as a sexual being.

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