The Reeler


May 10, 2007

Georgia Rule

Two good maternal melodrama performances stifled by turgid material, stiff execution

Tension on a movie set seems to either work for or against the finished product, with no in betweens. In the “against” scenario the tension is transparent, stiffening the air so that attempts at lightness are especially painful. With a film like The Misfits, however, which was hamstrung continually by Marilyn Monroe’s illnesses, tantrums and marriage woes, the pain finds it way into all the right places, with cast and crew somehow funneling their frustrations toward the greater good. Perhaps it’s not a fair comparison, as Mark Andrus, the writer of Georgia Rule, is no Arthur Miller, and Garry Marshall is no John Huston. And though Lindsay Lohan, star and resident shit-disturber on the Georgia Rule set, has made wistful allusions to Monroe, the strangled, strangely holographic performance she gives as the troubled Rachel suggests nothing of the fragile magnetism her heroine could project on even her brattiest day.

Lohan turned down the role of the alpha bitch in Mean Girls, going with the brainy innocent so as not to alienate her young fan base. With that in mind the role of raunchy, 17-year-old Rachel is a very deliberate turn, and one handily in line with Lohan’s public, girl-gone-wild persona. Odd, then -- or perhaps testimony to the film’s sour atmosphere -- that she is much more convincing as the girl next door than the godless harlot; it reminded me of Scarlett Johanssen’s laughably self-conscious attempts at “sexy” in Match Point. Georgia Rule opens with a car-side argument between Rachel and her mother Lilly (Felicity Huffman) that ends with Rachel stranded on the highway near her grandmother’s home in Hull, Idaho. When picked up by the local veterinarian (Dermot Mulroney) we are meant to get a full dose of the brazen redhead’s pugnacity, but instead of being sassy, Lohan plays sassy, and instead of bantering, the two exchange banter; the rhythm is always is several beats off the mark, and that remains the case for much of the film, torpedoing what might have been a half-decent entry in the Marshall canon of entertainments.

While Georgia (Jane Fonda) awaits her granddaughter’s arrival for the summer, the toxic relationship between she and her daughter Lilly is established as bluntly as the reason for Rachel’s stay, which is provided directly after the boundary-challenged slattern finally slatterns in, flashing her false eyelashes like sharpened teeth. Her parents have thrown up their hands and think Georgia, with all of her goofy rules, can provide some discipline. The story of a bad girl blowing into a small, God-fearing town deserves its own mini-genre, with Ramblin’ Rose at the apex, and Marshall hits many of the marks, including the boob-struck young boy whose body keeps betraying him. But the director splits off into quasi-Volver territory when the plot suddenly bubbles up the possible sexual abuse of Rachel by her step-father (Cary Elwes), and, as the trailer intones, “three generations of women discover the bonds that make them family.” Jane Fonda was the best part of those trailers, and the same holds true of the movie; I would have gladly followed Georgia, Lilly (Huffman does characteristically moving, funny, scathing work as an alcoholic in well-heeled denial) and the widower veterinarian she dated in high school into their own movie and done without Lohan and the did-he or didn’t-he altogether.

As it stands, Lohan marshals her skinny butt, giant boobs and baby fat face to seduce the local yokel, a similarly hot-bodied Mormon who assumes they will be married when Rachel finally gets her way. The talk-show tested idea is that Rachel is looking for a man who will say no, her sex and love wires being permanently crossed via a history of abuse by a trusted man who purported -- often convincingly, as she admits with heartbreaking confusion -- to love her. But Marshall swings fast and loose with the secret door the film hinges on, and we are meant to high-five when Rachel confronts the local mean girls, telling them she will fuck their boyfriends stupid if they don’t leave her alone. Isn’t the promiscuous legacy of child sexual abuse hilarious?

As with most maternity melodramas, many doors get slammed and a lot of caustic unsayables get said; there is formidable dramatic force behind many of the interchanges, but the balance between them is too tenuous, with Marshall tending toward glib mishandling of the gravely serious aspects of his story. Lohan gets a little easier to watch as the film goes on, and yet the feeling that all of the air has exited whichever scene she is in never really lets up. I exhaled only when Fonda and Huffman got to sink their claws (and hooded blue eyes) into each other, giving a master class in how good acting can trump even the gawkiest, mawkiest dialogue.

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