Even if you didn't know
that The Sisters was based on a play you would pick up on it easily
enough just by watching for moments.
The film basically takes
place almost completely in one setting, the
extraordinarily ornate faculty lounge of a New York college, with a few
short side trips to a hospital, a chapel, a bodega and the part of campus
directly in front of the lounge.
The dialogue is more than
occasionally too stagy. In fact it is often extremely beautiful
and well-thought out and at the same time you don't believe for a second
that someone would really say that.
The narrative touches – with anger
and passion, yet strangely rather
politely – on controversial subjects like lesbianism, adultery, drug abuse,
incest and rampant sarcasm. However these are mostly only discussed,
with little of the actual dirt ever being shown in the light of day.
Actually, The Sisters
has its theatricality twice removed. The screenplay is based upon
a play which itself is based on another play; the original source material being
Anton Chekov's classic parable The Three Sisters. The new
version updates the story, moving the characters from the ghettos of early
20th Century Russia to the secluded, privileged ivy halls of academia in modern New
York. Frankly, the new setting really does the story little favors
and – with the exception of a couple of funky, short visits to the real world
of Manhattan – this insulated world could be anywhere.
The plot revolves around
four siblings, three girls and a boy who have grown together. Their
father was a respected dean of the college who had moved the family up to
New York from their now-romanticized childhood home in Charleston.
Their father has been dead
for nearly twenty years and yet his shadow still engulfs his offspring.
The oldest is Olga (Mary Stuart Masterson). She is the "smart" one, who has taken
over her father's position on the staff and is now a closeted lesbian
control freak who refuses to deal with her emotions. Marcia, the
middle, "beautiful" sister (Maria Bello) has the exact opposite reaction in
her life. She is stuck in a loveless marriage and spews her anger and venom
towards everyone who gets in her line of sight.
The cuckolded brother, Andrew
(Alessandro Nivola), has replaced being bullied by his sisters with being
bullied by his boorish new fiancée (Elizabeth Banks). The baby, Irene,
(Erica Christensen) is the sweet, innocent, caring one. She is just now
graduating from the school, however she harbors dark secrets of her own.
Orbiting their world are
Marcia's disgusted husband (Steven Culp) and two young professors (Chris
O'Donnell and Eric McCormack). The profs both try to hide their love for Irene, but show it in very
different ways; O'Donnell with nearly stalkerish, passive-aggressive worship
and McCormack with simmering rage and verbal diatribes. Rip Torn plays
an aging Professor who watches the proceedings with both humor and disdain,
occasionally feeling the need to throw himself into the fray to try to
ground the proceedings.
The final piece of the
dysfunctional puzzle appears in the form of Vincent (Tony Goldwyn), the
former assistant to their father. Vincent suddenly mysteriously
reappears in their lives out of the blue after many years – coincidentally
on Irene's twenty-second birthday.
They all quarrel ravenously
amongst their lovers and themselves to the point that one wonders how they
have survived all this time together. In fact, the constant bickering,
all of it unusually verbose and pithy, wears on the
audience a bit. It all leaves you wondering if any of these people are ever happy about
anything in life (except for Torn's character, the only one who seems
to have any type of balance or perspective.).
Most of the acting – while
maybe modulated a little high due to the movie's roots on the boards – is
still very impressive.
In particular, Bello stands out in a role that is so defeated and bitter
that she should be completely unlikable. However, the actress gives her
substance and nuance. You can't help but like her even when you hate the
things she says and does. Masterson is much more restrained in her
role and Christensen has an innocent charm which wavers a bit when the
character faces her darker side.
Eric McCormack is also
surprisingly good. You never would have pictured this kind of throbbing
intensity during the years he's toiled light-heartedly in Will and Grace. On
the other hand, Elizabeth Banks plays the
fiancée as a working class nightmare. Unfortunately this movie completely
overlooks the charm and sexiness that the actress showed in her supporting role in
The 40 Year-Old Virgin. It's not the performer's fault. It's
the role they gave her, and it seems a waste of talent.
The Sisters has some
terrific acting and a lot of very good moments, but watching it you can't
help but think you'd probably have enjoyed it a lot more on the stage, where
it really belongs.
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Posted: June 13, 2006.