Carlson Rule: Thou shalt not cast a starlet whose cup size outweighs her talent.
I try not to use this precious space to address the public lives of the actors in whatever film I happen to be reviewing. Obviously, it’s impossible to do that, and a necessary nod at a star’s off-screen antics is sometimes a helpful component in considering his or her career as a whole, e.g., Tom Cruise’s increasingly disturbing behavior was witnessed in conjunction with his continued place in the blockbuster stratosphere in War of the Worlds and Mission: Impossible III. But overall, I try to focus more on the art (or lack thereof) at hand than the kind of tabloid gossip crap that’s swallowing us all whole. However, Georgia Rule stars Lindsay Lohan, a name and presence now synonymous with underage partying, coke-fueled weight fluctuation, and semi-accidental red-carpet nudity. Sure, every generation needs their own Drew Barrymore, so I guess this one’s mine. But Lohan’s popularity with talking heads on VH1 and hounds of paparazzi tend to distract people from a very real, unfortunate truth: She can’t act. This isn’t to say she won’t become more skilled over time, but all the lessons in the world can only refine what’s there, not replace it with a gift that isn’t. Her character is at the heart of Garry Marshall’s Georgia Rule, and it’s a case of real-life typecasting that winds up doing the film irreparable harm. Marshall pins the film’s success on Lohan’s uncertain, flighty shoulders, and the result is a tedious, overlong drama carried by an unengaging, bland performance. I can only imagine what the film would have been if Marshall had cast another actress, or even an unknown, to play the central character, allowing the focus to stay on the story and not those acting it out. But that’s what might have been; this is what is, and it’s not pretty.
Carlson Rule: Thou shalt not make a dark drama and attempt to pass it off as a fluffy intergenerational comedy.
I can’t completely fault Marshall, however, for the way the film has been packaged and sold. Studios, ad execs, and trailer houses all do their fair share of damage in the production process to the film’s unfinished product; a great example of this is Brian Helgeland’s Payback, which was cut into a breezy, campy trailer that went over so well with simplistic test audiences that the film itself was recut, retooled, and ultimately removed from Helgeland’s creative hands. So I realize that it might — might — not have been Marshall’s grand plan to sell Georgia Rule as a modern-day chick flick about three clashing generations of independent women, when it’s really a sad, uncomfortable drama about familial hatred and sexual abuse. (Hooray!) The film opens with Rachel (Lohan) walking down the highway while her mother, Lilly (Felicity Huffman), drives alongside and tries to get her back in the car. They’re fighting, swearing, Rachel’s kicking dirt: Mmm, family. Lilly drives off and leaves Rachel walking alone in the empty country outside Hull, Idaho, where Rachel was headed to stay with her grandmother, Georgia (Jane Fonda). Mark Andrus’ script starts somewhat dark and stays that way, but this time James L. Brooks isn’t along to assist with the screenplay and direct it, as he did with Andrus’ As Good As It Gets. That comedy balanced darkness and light pretty well, and Brooks helped tremendously with its assurance of tone. But Marshall has historically had trouble keeping a cohesive feel when his comedies flirt with a sinister undercurrent: Witness Jason Alexander’s attempted rape of Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, the one false scene in an otherwise classic romantic comedy.
Things get worse when Rachel finally arrives at Georgia’s house, a whirlwind of sexual deviance and teenage anger who attacks Georgia only to get sniped at in return. These are broken, hurting people who still won’t stop cutting at each other. It’s tough to watch, and only gets tougher when Marshall can’t make up his mind about whether he wants this to be a comedy with some serious moments or a melodrama with a few laughs to break the tension. Georgia, in a gimmick that’s not quite played up enough to warrant the film’s title, issues a series of rules to Rachel about dinner schedules, her no-tolerance policy on blasphemy, etc. Georgia even gets Rachel a job at the office of the local veterinarian, Simon (Dermot Mulroney), but Rachel doesn’t care. Everything is fueled by a generic anger, and it’s thoroughly dull.
Carlson Rule: Thou shalt not make thy starlet’s character so unlikable we don’t care about her suffering.
Rachel is a troubled teen; I get it, OK? I get it. But she’s written as a flighty pest, and Lohan isn’t nearly gifted enough to bring out whatever subtleties Andrus may have buried in the script for her. Lohan’s line readings feel like just that: stilted readings of dialogue she just finished memorizing. She stumbles awkwardly through the film’s dark secret, revealed in the first act: Rachel confesses to Simon, “I was 12 years old when my stepfather started having sex with me,” which is when the film comes to a screeching halt on the highway to boring drama and makes a hard left for Crazytown. Wait, she was abused? Whoa. Just, let’s all hold on a sec. She was abused?
Yes, yes she was, and her molestation at the hands of her stepfather (Cary Elwes) is what attempts to drive the rest of the narrative forward, as Lilly comes back to town to find out if it’s true, and Rachel debates whether she should lie and what she should lie about. This is deeply unfunny stuff, and Marshall is just too breezy to make it work as a convincing drama. Lohan never gives Rachel a spark of believability; it’s just a costume she’s briefly wearing that will help her maintain her fame. Which is a shame, because there’s a premise for a great story under all the junk, a low-key tale of forgiveness and change and small shots at atonement that gets lost in the shuffle of Andrus’ overlong story and Marshall’s inability to make a movie that isn’t a mushy celebration of its own existence (The Other Sister, anyone?). The whole thing comes off like a giant episode of “Everwood,” only with fewer beards and more rape. It’s incestuous, distressing stuff, but worst of all, it’s boring.
Aside from Lohan’s mannered performance, Fonda is surprisingly watchable, and nowhere near the stereotypical sassy-grandma caricature the ads have made her out to be. Huffman, of course, is the best dramatic actor in the group, so of course she gets the least screen time. Mulroney is so quietly funny he seems to have wandered in from the better movie this could have been. But Lohan, again, is all over the board. Rachel is supposed to be overly sexual, acting out a combination of typical angst and warped physicality incurred by the years of abuse, but Lohan’s real-life persona invades and overrides the character. Watching her walk down main street, fiercely thin and clearly between bouts of rehab and “exhaustion,” I found I wasn’t pitying Rachel, but Lohan.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.I'm Exhausted, Too
Film | May 13, 2007 | Comments ()