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Saturday, Jan. 15, 2000

'THE OTHER SISTER'

The homecoming of the inner child


Move the "s" in "smother" from the beginning to the end and what you get is "mothers." That's just one of the nifty revelations proffered in the new Garry Marshall movie, "The Other Sister."

Marshall's name was emblazoned in the Hollywood Hall of Fame with "Pretty Woman," the definitive I Ching of chick flicks. Now his radars are tuned in to the muck and dirt of the mother/daughter relationship, though (true to his style), the picture stops short of really soiling its hands. No, redemption comes in the last reel with teary hugs and kisses and oh-I'm-so-proud-of-you-honeys -- well, it leaves one feeling just a teensy bit unsatisfied.

Or perhaps it's merely that I'm jealous. With me and my mom, arguments never end with hugs and kisses. Arguments (whatever they may be) inevitably end with mom getting upset that her daughter, once again, has not been wearing thermal underwear.

On another level, "The Other Sister" is a love story, one that the distributors inform us is for "the romantically challenged." It features a cuddly couple with IQ problems, whose personalities are a collage of all that was charming about people like Forrest Gump, the Rain Man, Nell and Co. In fact, so cute and made-for-each-other are they that it's a mystery why the pair are in any way romantically challenged. Surely it's the normal, workaday computer gnomes like you and me who could use a few tips.

The story opens on a homecoming: Twenty-three-year-old Carla Tate (Juliette Lewis) has graduated from a "special school" that she was sent to many years ago, after her mom, Elizabeth (Diane Keaton), decided that the family could no longer live with Carla's inadequacies. A grown woman physically, Carla still has trouble getting her peas to stay on her fork, and speaks with the disarming naivete of a 10-year-old. But she's willing, bright and full of hopes for the future. Mom has her own plans for her daughter, like tennis parties and ladies' lunches. But to her credit, Carla says no. She wants to go to a polytechnic school so she can get a job, then she wants to find her own apartment.

Supporting Carla in her decisions are two older sisters and Dad (Tom Skerritt), who deserves to be showered with those drugstore dolls engraved with the words "Best Dad in the World." He drives her to school, pays for her apartment, calls her little endearments and backs her up in every scheme. When Carla informs her parents that she's going to a dance party escorted by a boyfriend (Giovanni Ribsi), he's with her all the way. Mom is full of advice about avoiding any slow dancing ("when the music gets slow, you go and get sodas, honey"), Dad smiles and wishes them a swell time.

Despite Mom's protests and interventions, Carla forges ahead to get what she wants, one precarious step at a time. Lewis is in top form -- the Child Woman of American cinema, she takes the role like a baton and sprints effortlessly through every scene. She reminds you of party balloons here: Everything about her is sprite, bright and candy colored. The contrast between Carla (all funky fun) and Elizabeth (the embodiment of Precision Good Taste) provides the funniest moments in the movie. When they go shopping for Carla's shoes, Mom wants to get sedate brown pumps, Carla is all agog for vinyl sneakers in fire-engine red. Mom redecorates Carla's childhood room in tasteful beige; her daughter is heartbroken over its unfamiliarity.

Watching all this, one is assailed by a sense of disbelief -- the Diane Keaton of "Annie Hall," of "Manhattan," of "Looking for Mr. Goodbar," appearing as the ultra-establishment, Californian housewife living in a five-bedroom Colonial, with a maid! She is a woman most in her element when planning birthdays, weddings and bossing interior decorators around. Twenty years ago she was a hippette in suede boots and now she's dressed like the Queen of England inspecting the Guards. Time went by, all right.

In the end, "The Other Sister" is a celebration of what therapists call the "child within." Carla's greatest asset is what sets her apart from other women her age: the ability to react to all things with the mind-set of a Real Nice Kid. She has never known irony, deceit, slyness, cynicism. To her, the world stretches endlessly on and on, all grassy green and what snakes there are can always be repelled with a trusty can of pepper spray (given to her by Mother, of course).

If you're interested in the child within but too busy to see a therapist, "The Other Sister" could be the next best thing.

"The Other Sister" opens today at the Marunouchi Champs Elysee in Ginza and other theaters.


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