PG-13, 2.5 stars

he sneak preview seemed less like a screening and more like a rally. Clearly, many members of the predominately female audience were devoted fans of 'Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and Little Altars Everywhere', the Rebecca Wells novels on which the movie is based. A surprising number of women arrived in groups of four, like the central quartet in the film, with a few sashaying into the auditorium wearing long dresses, boas, tiaras and headdresses similar to those used in Ya-Ya ceremonies. When the house lights went down, an excited murmur swept the theater. One hundred and 17 minutes later, the closing credits were met with hearty applause.

Ah, fans.

In the lobby afterwards, one elderly woman casually said to another, "It was really more about the mother and daughter than the sisterhood, wasn"t it?" She was right and that is the main problem with the movie. Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood works when focused on the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, but flounders when addressing the volatile relationship between a mother and a daughter. The Ya-Ya girls are a hoot, but the quasi Terms of Endearment plotline, which dominates the movie, plays like it seeped in from any of a hundred disposable flicks on the Lifetime network.

The film, directed by Thelma and Louise writer Callie Khouri, starts off wonderfully with a scene from the 1930s, as four young Southern girls, decked out in long dresses, boas and elaborate handmade headdresses, gather in the dark of night. While passing a goblet of blood (chocolate syrup) from one "priestess" to another, Vivi leads the secret society, delivering a speech, packed with bold pronouncements and assorted mumbo-jumbo, that extols the mystical virtues of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.

Cut to 60 years later in New York, where playwright Sidda Lee Walker (Sandra Bullock), daughter of Vivi, gives an interview to Time magazine that includes unflattering references to Vivi"s parenting skills. When the magazine hits the stands, Vivi (Ellen Burstyn) reads the resultant article and goes into overload, calling her daughter to bang the telephone on a tabletop, opening a riotous campaign of drama-queen one-upmanship between the pair.

When it becomes clear that Vivi will not be attending the wedding of Sidda and her incredibly patient boyfriend Connor (Angus Macfadyen), the other elderly Ya-Yas decide to take action. They visit Sidda in Manhattan, slip her a mickey and spirit her off to one of their Southern homes for an intervention. While the captive Sidda howls, Teensy (Fionnula Flanagan), Necie (Shirley Knight) and Caro (Maggie Smith) pull out the Divine Ya-Ya Sisterhood scrapbook to teach the child about her mother ("Every since your mama came into this world, she always took up all the space in a room.").

And then the flashbacks begin, hopping between the 1930s and 1960s with frequent stops to propel the situation in the present. This marks the point when the film becomes far less entertaining. Keeping track of who is who in the three time periods is difficult. The "60s flashbacks are the hardest, in part because that particular group of actors is the weakest. Not for one minute did I believe that Ashley Judd could ever grow into the character played by Ellen Burystyn. For that matter, I believed virtually nothing that Ashley Judd said or did. Her performance is thin, extremely shrill and not the least bit credible. Worse, the spotlight is so firmly on her that the other characters in the "60s flashbacks are given virtually nothing to do except to react.

Slowly, the film builds to a climax designed to reveal to Sidda a huge secret about her mother. The secret, which will come as a shock to no one, is presented with an absurd amount of melodrama (Judd"s performance becomes flat-out embarrassing during this section) with little dramatic punch. Someone should have told the filmmakers that when you open a film using melodramatic behavior for laughs, it is hard to come back later and draw tears with similar histrionics.

The portions of the movie showcasing the young and old versions of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood are great fun. Bullock is fine and the four stellar old ladies are an absolute hoot, with Macfadyen and James Garner, as Vivi"s unfailingly supportive husband Shep, providing strong support. And the music, assembled by Khouri, T Bone Burnett and David Mansfield, is truly memorable. Had the movie stuck with the elderly Ya-Yas, allowing the charismatic cast to tell about the incidents in the old days rather than having an inferior troupe reenact them, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood might have worked better. But focusing on the tired mother-daughter story while short shifting the Sisterhood takes a great deal of divine out of the movie.

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