My Sister's Keeper
A sob story with heart
The domestic afflictions in “My Sister’s Keeper’’ pile onto the Fitzgerald family with biblical fury. Sixteen-year-old Kate (Sofia Vassilieva) has battled leukemia for most of her life. Eleven-year-old Anna (Abigail Breslin) has had it with being a “donor child,’’ born to provide marrow and tissue for her sister, and is suing for legal emancipation. Oldest son Jesse (Evan Ellingson) is dyslexic and doing something naughty downtown.
A pall of disaster, in fact, hangs over everyone in this shapeless, hankie-wringing adaptation of the best-selling Jodi Picoult novel. The judge in the case (Joan Cusack) is mourning a daughter dead in an accident, and Anna’s lawyer (Alec Baldwin) keeps a service dog around for reasons that become clear late in the film. And there’s the children’s mother, Sara (Cameron Diaz), a monster of maternal denial so steely she could have been played by Joan Crawford in her fire-breathing prime.
For all that, devoted fans of Picoult’s books - hot-button family melodramas that never let up - may be most distressed by the violence done to the source. In bringing “My Sister’s Keeper’’ to the screen, co-writer/director Nick Cassavetes (“The Notebook’’) jettisons characters, drops plotlines, obscures a few motivations, and completely changes the author’s original ending. This book hasn’t been adapted, it’s been taken outside and shot.
That’s not such a bad idea, really. Picoult offered readers a hugely contrived final twist that multiplex audiences would probably have rejected en masse. What we get, instead, is weepy closure slightly more in keeping with the way life (or the movies) actually works. Yet “My Sister’s Keeper’’ is still a well-intentioned mess, peppered with strong performances and gripping moments but unable to get around the book’s lack of a strong central story line.
Actually, the novel’s spine is Kate’s cancer - every action and reaction radiates out from her disease. And “My Sister’s Keeper’’ is very lucky to have the unknown Vassilieva in the role, rooting the film in her character’s quiet, rebellious strength even as her body fails in horrible ways. This is a movie where the vomited blood looks real but the torrential emotions never stick.
Cassavetes follows little Anna as the court case proceeds - Breslin (“Little Miss Sunshine’’) coasts on her natural warmth here, which is fine - then hops to the struggle between Sara and her mellow-dude fireman husband Brian (Jason Patric) to define Kate’s final months, then halfheartedly follows Jesse as he does not much of anything. In the process, the film’s dramatic tension just dribbles away. The one section of “My Sister’s Keeper’’ that feels right and true is Kate’s brief romance with a fellow cancer patient (Thomas Dekker, very good), but even that is resolved in a frustratingly unresolved manner.
Left on their own, the actors bear down or drift away. Cusack twitches entertainingly; Baldwin, asked to play a good and decent man, has no idea how to proceed. Stepping further out onto the dramatic limb she explored in “In Her Shoes,’’ Diaz at least gets her hooks into the dilemma that drives her character relentlessly forward: A corporate lawyer on long-term leave, Sara treats her daughter’s cancer as a case she can’t afford to lose. The role’s a rich piece of Bad Mom melodrama, and a more daring actress might have taken it to operatic heights. Diaz either won’t or can’t quite get it there.
The movie has excised the book’s Big Lulu toward the end, but there is a more modest climactic twist. Unfortunately, it has the effect of rendering everything we’ve seen up to now beside the point, and “My Sister’s Keeper’’ stands revealed for what it is: disease-of-the-week exploitation with a few topical issues frosted on. If you respond - and there was plenty of discreet sobbing in the screening I attended - it’s only because Vassilieva makes you care for her character, a believable teenage girl whose disease has only made her stronger. She’s a saint, but she’s one we can live with.