It’s appropriate that My Sister’s Keeper opens during the same week as Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. Keeper, in a way, is the chick-flick version of a Michael Bay film, and Nick Cassavettes (The Notebook) is Bay’s chick-flick counterpart. While Bay movies are essentially a series of brain-assaulting explosions and loud noises, Cassavetes brings us a series of weep triggers and schmaltzy white-boy songs. In either respect, neither director understands that a little goes a long way, preferring instead overkill to the point of absurdity. Each time during My Sister’s Keeper that Cassavetes brings his audience to the brink of tears, he pushes it just a little further. The result: Instead of weeping like a German teenager at a David Hasselhoff concert, the audience breathes an exasperated, “Are you fucking serious?”
Indeed, while Bay assaults us with slo-mo cleavage and too many Decepticons to count, get a load of the weep triggers in My Sister’s Keeper: 1) A teenage girl with leukemia; 2) a cute, doting little sister trying to gain medical control over her body; 3) a boyfriend with cancer; 4) a lawyer with an iron lung; 5) a cute dog; 6) a judge who has recently lost of 12-year-old daughter of her own to a drunk driver; 7) a neglected dyslexic brother; 7) and a couple whose marriage is strained by their daughter’s condition. A cancer kid movie, alone, apparently wasn’t enough for Cassavetes. He needed to force as many opportunities to jerk your tears as possible and then he crowds everything out with maudlin tunes. There are no less than seven sequences set to these sob songs; it’s like stringing together the last five minutes of 10 “Grey’s Anatomy” episodes. And in order for a movie like this to be effective on at least some level, you have to mix the sweet with the sorrow. Sadly, there’s no sweetness in My Sister’s Keeper. Just unrelenting sorrow.
The bigger shame of it is, taken in isolation, there are actually some really solid performances in My Sister’s Keeper. Alec Baldwin — sans blowhard snark — is capable, as always; Abigail Breslin continues to be the best and least obnoxious child actor in recent memory; Sofia Vassilieva, who plays the daughter with cancer, does so adeptly and without overplaying her hand; and the biggest surprise of all is how great Cameron Diaz, as the crazy-bitch mother, is. She’s as good as I’ve seen her since her Oscar-nominated performance as the crazy bitch girlfriend in Vanilla Sky. Apparently, Diaz does have a niche.
However, taken as a whole, it’s just too much. It’s like the Counting Crows — they’re a pretty decent radio band, so long as you only hear one of their songs every 12 hours. But, try listening to their greatest hits (excluding “Mr. Jones”) for two hours. At a certain point, you’re like: “Jesus, Duritz. Mope much, motherfucker?” And I say this as a critic whose kryptonite is usually cancer kid movies — they’re manipulative as hell, but done with half-an-ounce of restraint, they’re effective in at least getting me to silently bawl. Five minutes into My Sister’s Keeper, however, and I was already desensitized. Hell, the two-minute trailer was far more effective than the two-hour movie.
The con: Teenage daughter, Kate Fitzgerald (Vassilieva) has been battling leukemia for most of her life. Her only real chance at survival was to find a good donor match — for bone marrow, cord blood transfusions, and — eventually — for a kidney. So, parents Sara (Diaz) and Brian (Jason Patric) decide to have a “designer baby.” They genetically conceive Anna (Breslin) and then essentially use her for spare parts. When she turns 11 and Kate goes into renal failure, however, Anna recruits Campbell Alexander (Baldwin) to help her sue her parents for medical emancipation — or the right to refuse to donate to her sister. And if you suspect that there’s more to it than the fact that Anna simply doesn’t want to give up her kidney to the sister she loves, congratulations! You’ve seen a movie before.
In addition to framing the movie around the emancipation hearing overseen by Judge De Salvo (Joan Cusack), there are also a series of flashbacks stuffed into the movie in the clumsiest ways imaginable. The major flashback involves Kate’s relationship with Taylor (Thomas Dekker), a patient she meets in the cancer ward. They quickly fall in love, go to cancer prom together, and consummate their relationship. And if you suspect that Taylor dies soon after, congratulations! You’ve seen a movie before.
Besides a few noteworthy performances, there is absolutely nothing exceptional about My Sister’s Keeper except in its ability to make easily manipulated moviegoers weep, not so much through the use of talent or a well-written script, but by sheer brute force. Cassavetes—adapting from Jodi Picoult’s slightly more restrained novel —has apparently opted for the Kama Sutra method of filmmaking—poking, prodding, and pummeling from every conceivable angle in the hopes that he can force salt-water ejaculate from your tear ducts (yes: There’s even a scrapbook). And what’s the absolute best way to wring those tear ducts out? Well, if you suspect that the daughter dies in the end, congratulations, you’ve seen a cancer movie before.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. You can email him or leave a comment below.