Friday, September 14, 2007

Georgia Rule

Director: Garry Marshall
Starring: Lindsey Lohan, Jane Fonda, Felicity Huffman, Dermot Mulroney, Garrett Hedlund, Cary Elwes, Hector Elizondo

Running Time: 114 min.

Rating: R

*** (out of ****)

I know, I know. I'm in shock also. What I'm referring to, of course, is the star rating above. It really ruined my plans. Think of how much fun this review could have been. I could have talked about how Jane Fonda marching into Lindsay Lohan's trailer on set and screaming at her to come to work on time was more exciting than any scene in the movie. I also could have cracked jokes about how Garry Marshall, the film's director, and judge on this summer's Fox reality show On The Lot, should have been thrown OFF THE LOT by Steven Spielberg for making this mess. But I can't. Why? Because in many ways, Georgia Rule is one of the most satisfying pictures Marshall's ever made. If anything, it's his best since Pretty Woman. With all the thrashing this has taken in the media, the truth is it's actually fine.

While "fine" may not exactly seem like a glowing endorsement, it is these days when it seems even movies I give three stars to come with an accompanying laundry list of problems. This one doesn't. It only has two and they're minor. There's an issue with tone (which is understandable when a feel-good family drama tackles issues such as molestation, alcoholism and oral sex) and it's slightly overlong. That's it. This isn't a great movie, but it's certainly a good one that featured characters I cared about and kept me entertained for the better part of 2 hours. Am I guilty of going in with super low expectations? Perhaps, but I have to recommend it because when it was over I found it did very little wrong and a lot right. It also offers an opportunity to see two very talented actresses go toe-to-toe. One of which (I can't believe I'm about to type this) is Lindsay Lohan. This movie doesn't succeed in spite of her presence, but because of it.

I had a blueprint in my mind of how this whole film would play out. We'd get a whole backstory of a bitchy teenage girl acting out until her mom tells her, "You're going to live with your Grandma!" Through the tough love of Grandma and the quirky local townsfolk she'll be miraculously transformed into a good girl and reconcile with her mother. And of course she'll fall in love. Some of that happens, but most of it doesn't and definitely not in the way you'd expect it to. We join the story in medias res as 17 year-old spoiled party girl Rachel Wilcox (Lohan) is walking alongside the car driven by her alcoholic mom Lilly (Academy Award nominee Felicity Huffman). They're driving from California so Rachel can spend the summer with grandmother Georgia (Fonda) in the small Mormon town of Hull, Utah. Unfortunately, Rachel can't stand mom's company long enough to share the car ride over and is discovered on the side of the road by dim-witted country hunk Harlan (Friday Night Lights' Garrett Hedlund). After a spirited back and forth with him, she's picked up and given a not so friendly lift to town by Dr. Simon Ward (Dermot Mulroney), an ex-flame of Lilly's.

Immediately upon her arrival, Rachel has met her match in Georgia as the woman has certain rules of conduct that must be adhered to if you're given the privilege to stay under her roof. This means for the first time Rachel actually has to clean her own dishes and (gasp!) get a job. One of the more refreshing elements of the film early on is that Fonda's character isn't exactly ruling with the stereotypical "iron fist" and it appears she's playing a little game with Rachel, trying to give her just enough rope to hang herself so she can learn a lesson. Georgia is capable of giving it just as well as she takes it. She knows this teen's game because she's been through this before with Lilly. Fonda's poised experience as an actress reflects this without the character ever having to say a word about it.

Rachel reluctantly agrees to a job as Dr. Ward's receptionist. He's a veteranarian who also happens to treat humans, because, well, it's a small town and people do weird things. This and a bizarre cameo from Hector Elizondo are the weirdest things that occur in this town as for once we're actually spared a cartoonish depiction of small town America and its "quirkiness." The people actually seem normal. What a relief. They're also justifiably taken aback by the arrival of Rachel and some of the best scenes in the movie are just her walking down the street (in clothes probably not too far off from what's in Lohan's wardrobe) turning heads in amazement in this conservative town. She's definitely unlike anything they've ever seen before.

It isn't long before she takes it upon herself to flaunt her sexual magnetism all over town, setting her sites on Harlan, despite the fact he's taken by a Mormon choir girl. I also really liked how the script didn't take the easy way out by just presenting Mormons as uptight prudes. They're real people with honest values being exposed to behavior they're not used to. An incident with Rachel and Harlan on his boat sends them into a tailspin. I can't say Garrett Hedlund gives a great performance but he does bring a clueless "aw shucks" charm to the role that's welcome here. Plus, how many movies have you seen where the teen GUY is the virgin being seduced by the girl?

When Felicity Huffman's Lilly reenters her daughter's life and family secrets threaten to be exposed I rolled my eyes. Surprisingly though, it isn't handled too badly. And when it is handled badly, it's even more compulsively watchable. Played hysterically over-the-top by Huffman, Lilly comes spinning through grandma's house like an F-5 tornado of substance abuse and vulgarity. She's easily the most detestable character in the film. Is it wrong for me to say I was happy to see her injured at one point during her many unstable tantrums? I was trying to figure out exactly why this character inflamed me with such hatred. Now I know and have to admit it. It's because Huffman did such a great job playing her.

Most critics and audiences have pointed to this section of the film as grounds that the script is ridiculous. How? I can't tell you how many families I've known of that have gone through stuff exactly like this. A parent has a problem and its passed on to their kid, who in turn passes it on to their kid. It destroys the whole family. Whether it's depression, substance abuse or whatever. As for how it's handled, sure it's slightly overwrought and overwritten but it's a Garry Marshall movie! None of that makes the material ring any less true. The performances of the actresses also keep everything in check, preventing this from sliding off into Lifetime movie of the week territory.

Amidst this splattering of family secrets, Rachel reveals that her stepfather Arnold (Cary Elwes) had molested her as a young girl, although there's no way of knowing whether she's telling the truth or it's just another troubled cry for attention. The molestation mystery, which has been criticized by everyone, actually adds some much needed intrigue and bite to the material. Helping further is the performance of Elwes who never tips his hand as to whether his character did this or not. Lilly doesn't know who to believe and neither do we. Rachel has slowly gained everyone's trust but could still be playing a game. Arnold on the surface seems like a good guy. There's legitimate doubt as to who's telling the truth. Some will say the final act is messy (which it is), but it's also full of surprises. Things are more complicated than they first appear and the direction the script takes Mulroney's Dr. Ward is unexpected. We think he's being set up as a potential love interest for Lilly, but that's not completely true. There's more to him than we suspect.

Mixing family comedy and heavy drama is tricky so the tone is inconsistent at times. You could blame that on the fact Marshall was rumored to have done some re-writes on Mark Andrus' original script, which could explain some of the fluffier material, a Marshall trademark. Despite that, if you compare this to Marshall's other lightweight fare, it could be considered a snuff film. It actually earns its "R" rating which is shocking considering its director. You can't punish the movie because the studio wanted to market it as a family friendly comedy when it's also trying to tackle more serious issues.

Unfortunately because of that I can't say I'm completely sure who the audience for this movie is supposed to be. Bad Lohan press aside, it isn't difficult to see why the movie bombed. It may seem like a "chick flick" from the advertisements but it's too dirty for that and it can't be considered a good date movie since it covers topics like child molestation. I also can't imagine girls getting pumped up to drag their boyfriends to a movie where they get to ogle Lohan for 2 hours. That's too bad because everyone missed out on guilty pleasures like Fonda telling Lohan to go fuck herself, attempting to literally wash people's mouths out with soap and beating men with baseball bats. After her humiliating comeback role in the dreadful Monster-In-Law this was a definite step up. At least it's fun.

When Lohan first appears on screen what immediately struck me was how surprisingly good she looks. She actually looks healthy! She bears much more of a resemblance to the Lindsay we remember from Mean Girls than the physically wasted one we've been seeing all year on t.v. and in magazines. I'll give it to her that she cleans up really well. She looks more like a major movie star than a troubled starlet here. Her presence doesn't take you out of the film (like her silly role in Bobby), but instead draws you in as she holds a sexy spell over the movie.

For all the controversy surrounding her on this film (including the infamous letter by Morgan Creek studio boss James G. Robinson) when the cameras started rolling she brought it. They'll be those who say she's just playing herself but I have to be honest and say this was one of the few times I wasn't distracted by the fact she's Lindsey Lohan, which is ironic considering the nature of this role. There are subtle nuances underneath Rachel's tough exterior and she does a good job conveying them, never pushing too hard. That the character bears a strong similarity to Lohan's real life public persona (or at least what we've perceived it to be) only increases the fascination and makes the film that much more interesting.

While I wouldn't categorize Lohan's off screen troubles as an industry loss even close to the level of Robert Downey Jr.'s downward spiral, this was the first time I was given a glimpse that we may be missing out on some interesting performances because of them. And to think here she's working with a script that's just merely competent. Before, I just wanted to see I Know Who Killed Me out of curiosity, now I actually WANT TO SEE IT. At the very least I'll give her the chance to take me wherever she wants to go as an actress, but it would be nice if she cleaned her life up so that specter doesn't hang over every picture she makes.

I understand the temptation to bash this movie. Believe me I do. But it isn't bad. When it ended I was overcome with a sense of dread. Dread because I knew I'd have to not only praise this film, but Lohan's performance. Images flashed of subscribers fading away and my dreams of one day joining the Internet Film Critics Society going up in flames. Still, at the end of the day, I have to say Georgia Rule is engaging, complicated and full of contradictions. A lot like its star.

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