Portrayed in flashback as a willful, angry, destructive child, Carla emerges from a private boarding school for the mentally handicapped as far more centered, sensible, and capable than anyone else on screen. But mama Elizabeth has always been slightly embarrassed by her youngest daughter (and, on top of that, has to contend with a lesbian daughter and an underachieving daughter). Elizabeth just can't accept Carla as a responsible adult who wants her own apartment, is determined to take courses at a regular school, and hopes for a boyfriend, who soon arrives in the form of Daniel (Giovanni Ribisi), an equally mentally challenged young man living on his own.
This is a very different role for former wild child Lewis, best known for provocative films like Natural Born Killers, and she does a fine job--as does Ribisi, most recently seen in Saving Private Ryan. The problem is, the film is so intent on being uplifting and happy that it treats the young protagonists almost like a circus act. Much of what they say and how they view the world is humorous, but it's like laughing at small children playing grown-up and remarking, "Oh, aren't they cute?"
In the same "out of the mouths of babes" vein, Carla reels off one platitude after another. She is by far the wisest character in the story. The film's humor is as mainstream and broad as it comes. On Halloween, Carla walks into the living room wearing a cumbersome swan costume and announces, "I feel so delicate," the joke being, of course, that she looks anything but delicate. When Carla and Daniel start thinking about sleeping together, they consult The Joy of Sex.
The dark side of life is never shown. Yes, Carla and Daniel both get frustrated, but they deal with it in a far more mature fashion than any flesh-and-blood person would, handicapped or not. Only one scene touches upon the real hardships Carla faces and how terribly it hurts. Otherwise, everyone she encounters treats her with patience and kindness. Even Elizabeth's embarrassment at having a "less than normal" daughter is never allowed to get too ugly or unflattering.
Although Carla, her parents, and her two sisters are frequently on screen together, there is no sense of familiarity or chemistry between any of them. It's not a question of a dysfunctional family; it's that no one seems related to anyone else. Keaton never creates much of a character--she seems to have stepped off the set of Father of the Bride--while Tom Skerritt is all smiles and no personality as Carla's dad. A few stern words between Elizabeth and her husband are supposed to reveal some tension but, like every other conflict in the film, the words and situations never become uncivilized. In his desire to present an upbeat, even inspirational film, Marshall sweeps the less attractive aspects of reality under the rug.
The Other Sister.
Directed by Garry Marshall. Written by Marshall and Bob Brunner. Starring Juliette Lewis, Diane Keaton, and Giovanni Ribisi. Opens Friday.