Twisted Sisters

A family's dysfunction turns ugly in a ruinous riff on Chekhov

Not long into The Sisters, a disastrously misconstrued melodrama "suggested" by the similarly named Chekhov play, three words come to mind: How. Much. Longer? Unfortunately, this graceless foray into faux psychology lacks even the decency to be short. (It does end in under two hours, though perhaps not before you'll have stuck forks in your eyes.) Chekhov, who has the good fortune of being dead as this film hits theaters, will weather this and every other assault on his finely attuned sensibilities. But will we?

With enough pretension to best a class of freshman Ivy Leaguers, Arthur Allan Seidelman's film attempts to take on a family's grave and multifaceted dysfunction, corralling 10 characters in a faculty lounge and setting them at each other like bulls in a pen. But rather than dramatize the conflict, allowing us to gradually gain sight of the internal wounds at play, The Sisterslays the issues bare. These people don't interact; they psychoanalyze — each other and themselves. This is thesis, not theater, and the false sophistication evokes nothing so much as a soap opera written by a psych major anxious to prove his wisdom, but betraying his emotional immaturity instead. Condescension is at a fever pitch.

Anchoring the film in its unrelenting tone of bile is Marcia (Maria Bello), the "beautiful" sister, aka a grossly inappropriate loon. In the opening scene, she dresses down Nancy (Elizabeth Banks), her brother's déclassé fiancée, with enough cruelty to destroy whatever suspension of disbelief we might have had time to muster. (Five minutes in, no film can support the weight of this exchange.) Nancy returns in kind, minus a few Latinate epithets — and then Marcia's husband shows up for a bout of his own. Second verse, same as the first. With Gary (Will & Grace's Eric McCormack) and David (Chris O'Donnell), two professor-friends of the family, bickering over a game of chess, the jousting is essentially nonstop.

The occasion for the faculty-lounge gathering is a surprise birthday party for Irene (Erika Christensen), the youngest sister, a moon-faced 22-year-old apparently unscathed by the trespasses of her late father, who harmed both Marcia and Olga (Mary Stuart Masterson) in unhealable ways. When Marcia drives the celebration into a ditch, Irene doesn't seem to mind. In fact, neither she nor anyone else does anything sensible — such as, say, buckling Marcia into a straitjacket and carting her off to a residential program. As it turns out, Irene is in a tailspin of her own, Lindsay Lohaning her way through a drug addiction that her sisters aren't willing to face. And all of this is merely by way of exposition; what follows is messier still.

Writer Richard Alfieri, who adapted the script from his stage play, hasn't given his material a leg to stand on. Within moments of introducing his characters, he endows them with didactic posturing so offensive as to immediately destroy our trust. Then he keeps doing it. To win us back, he'd have to whip up something mind-bendingly accomplished and humane, but he prefers to further regale us with his blunt instrument.

Here's Alfieri's idea of human speech: "I haven't flirted with a man in years. My responses are those of a coquette from another era." Who says this? Sure, Marcia is an academic (well, she knows a lot of academics), but even people with Ph.D.'s and knitted sweaters are reduced to plain English when poised on the brink of adultery. Or how about this: "What is the truth, anyway? Sometimes it's just the verbalization of our surface insecurities and fears, but, once spoken, the words define our reality." Asleep yet? Or just pissed? If we were in search of irresponsibly vague notions about ontology, we could have endured What the (Bleep) Do We Know!? again.

Frankly, this script is the pits. Belabored, miserable, masturbatory, and self-congratulatory, it can't stop reveling in its attempt to deconstruct itself, never noticing that we have long since ceased to care. What can an actor do with this material? Or a director? While it's not a surprise to find "Hallmark Hall of Fame" on Seidelman's resume, one has to pity him his task; there is no rescuing this drivel, in which every moment is a revelation and every character is perennially breaking through. The resulting assemblage is like porn — rote, empty, and humorless, building to money shot after money shot without any true release.

There is one interesting performance. As Andrew, the lone brother, Alessandro Nivola is admirably subtle, rising from a resigned half-cower to fits of righteous anger when the occasion warrants. Andrew is the Tom figure in this crowded glass menagerie, the eye in the storm of hysteria; we cling to his relative sense, but it can't carry us far through the rest of the bullshit, which is piled high and wide. There's only one destination for a film this catastrophically overwrought: the Academy Awards.

 
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