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My Sister's Keeper

(2009) ** Pg-13
106 min. New Line Cinema. Director: Nick Cassavetes. Cast: Cameron Diaz, Abigail Breslin, Alec Baldwin, Jason Patric, Joan Cusack.

/content/films/3467/1.jpgNick Cassavetes' My Sister's Keeper ably marks the essential beats of the disease drama: hope and dread in the face of an unfair situation that's troubling to the core. And yet the disease drama as a genre is simplistic and passé, if that's all there is. To bend the film from its unforgiving shape (the patient gets worse, the patient gets a little better, the patient gets worse again, and then climactically survives or dies), there must be cleverly extenuating plot circumstances or fascinating characters. As adapted by Jeremy Leven and Cassavetes from Jodi Picoult's novel, My Sister's Keeper gives it the old college try but fails to excel on these counts.

The Fitzgerald family puts a brave face on the cancer battle being waged by leukemia-stricken teenager Kate (Sofia Vassilieva). For years, they've smiled through the pain, with some notable exceptions: those times when younger sister Anna (Abigail Breslin) has been tapped for umbilical cord blood, bone marrow, and the like. As the eleven-year-old Anna puts it, "I'm a designer baby," conceived in a test tube expressly for the donor-matching purpose of prolonging Kate's life (the unofficial suggestion of Kate's doctor). When Kate takes a turn for the worst requiring a kidney transplant for any hope of survival, Anna puts her foot down. Hiring Campbell Alexander (Alec Baldwin), a lawyer she's seen on TV, Anna sues her parents "for the rights to her own body."

There's an interesting idea here, and it gets some play. Her mind surrendered to her heart, driven mother Sara (a fierce Cameron Diaz) immediately flies to Kate's defense. Sara's used to "triage," and her dying daughter comes first. Dad Brian (Jason Patric) isn't so sure; he still has vivid memories of having to hold the unwilling five-year-old Anna down for painful tests.

Sara: What side are you on?
Brian: What side? Are there sides now?

Now Anna can fully understand the consequences of her action or inaction: does she deserve limited "medical emancipation" to protect her from overzealous parents? The only thing guaranteed about a transplant, after all, is a lessened quality of life for Anna. There's also a son in the mix, teenage Jesse (Evan Ellingson). He broods in the background, understanding more than his parents but saying nothing.

/content/films/3467/2.jpgMy Sister's Keeper is undeniably manipulative, not only in its plot, but in its dramatization of it. One character's death plays out in the most chain-yanking way possible. In another scene, Brian and Sara have a fiery argument over whether or not its wise to take Kate to the beach. Though in the previous scene, Kate's doctor tells Brian he thinks it a fine idea, Brian never mentions this point as Sara freaks out. Why? Because it would immediately turn down the volume to a sane discussion, and the movie needs to strut. In the courtroom, Joan Cusack's Judge De Salvo warns Alexander, "No showboating," but the movie doesn't take the advice, even when it comes to De Salvo (by a striking coincedence, this case is her first one back after the death of her daughter).

The whole plot, which turns out to rest on a twist, is predicated on a family's utter inability to get through to the mother, but surely there are easier ways than an elaborate end run involving a trial, especially when the father immediately proves so open minded. When the story isn't bogus, it's obscure, seemingly as a result of clumsy whittling in the editing room. Jesse inexplicably sits in front of bars at night and takes buses that regularly get him home after dark. Do school activities push his schedule into the evening? Is he simply brooding? Is he drinking, though it's never depicted? Who knows, but Anna later remarks about how he "turned his life around"...from what? At any rate, the scenes of Jesse brooding allow music-video-styled montages that, as The Simpsons' Kirk Van Houten might say, "borrow a feeling."

At least Cassavetes has the taste to use Jimmy Scott's cover of "Heaven," one of several thematic gestures that makes My Sister's Keeper not dissimilar to Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones. Like that afterlife-concerned parable of family togetherness under siege--due to death stalking a teen girl--My Sister's Keeper depicts irresponsible parenting, the counter-intuitive notion of a child comforting a parent, flashback structuring, and an interest in each character's thought process. At the film's outset, each character gets a swatch of narration to express some thoughts, but Leven and Cassavetes should committed more to this technique instead of applying it haphazardly at best after the first round. (As for Picoult's novel, readers will likely revolt when they discover the film abandons the book's ending.)

The acting is solid all around, and bits of comic byplay from Cusack and Baldwin (two of Hollywood's most finely aged troupers) are most welcome. Thomas Dekker (Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles) proves winning as a cancer patient who strikes up a sweet romance with Kate, and Emily Deschanel puts in a scene as a doctor, presumably to hang out with her dad (crack director of photography Caleb Deschanel). Cassavetes is too nervously willing to fall back on easy effects to comfort (a photo booth montage of family bliss) or sadden his audience, which means My Sister's Keeper will play your emotions and piss you off in the process.

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Aspect ratios: 2.4:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: Dolby TrueHD 5.1

Street date: 11/17/2009

Distributor: Warner Home Video

Another fine transfer from Warner graces My Sister's Keeper. Detail and texture is strong, and the pretty-as-a-picture color scheme favored by director Nick Cassavetes comes through just as it did on big screens. The occasional dreamy softness is intentional, and if a bit of mild artifacting occasionally results, it's unlikely to distract any but the greatest of nitpickers. Clearly, this A/V presentation is head and shoulders over its standard-def equivalent, and though the film's aural demands are minimal, the Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround mix handles dialogue and music with aplomb, while also recreating the surround separation designed for theaters.

Warner delivers a Blu-ray exclusive featurette called "From Picoult to Screen" (13:34, HD) that discusses the process of adapation. In addition to set footage, author Jodi Picoult, director Nick Cassavetes, Alec Baldwin, producer Mark Johnson, Cameron Diaz, screenwriter Jeremy Leven, Abigail Breslin, and Sofia Vassilieva participate in interviews.

Also on hand are eight "Additional Scenes" (16:24, SD) that fill out the story a bit but are understandably expendable.

Lastly, a Digital Copy resides on a second disc.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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