The Sandra Bullock Files is a series that looks at the films of Oscar-winning actress Sandra Bullock, all the way from her debut in 1987, to her two major 2018 releases, Ocean’s Eight and Bird Box.
Just six weeks after the release of Murder by Numbers, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood opened in theaters to modest acclaim and better-than-expected box office. As much as high-powered male executives are wary of making movies for a female audience, these kinds of films always tend to do well, even when they’re on the mediocre side, like this film.
Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood is ambitious, blending flashbacks with the present and presenting themes of parental neglect, abuse, racism, and alcoholism. The movie tries to be both a family drama and a broad comedy, and it doesn’t fully succeed at either. On the plus side, first time director Callie Khouri (who won an Academy Award for her Thelma & Louise screenplay) assembled a tremendous cast, which includes Ellen Burstyn (who was hot off her Oscar nomination for Requiem for a Dream), Ashley Judd, Maggie Smith, and, of course, Sandra. If nothing else, it’s fun to spend two hours watching these gals play around and try to elevate fairly routine material.
Sandra originally didn’t want to play the role of Siddalee Walker, a playwright who accidentally reveals in a printed interview all the secrets of her eccentric mother Vivi (played in the present by Burstyn, and in flashbacks by Judd). In the audio commentary, Khouri reveals that Sandra was tired after shooting 28 Days, Miss Congeniality, and Murder by Numbers nearly back to back, and wanted to take a break. But Khouri begged and pleaded, and finally Sandra reconsidered. What’s interesting is that Sandra would go on a few months later to shoot Two Weeks Notice, and then she finally did take her vacation, a two-and-a-half-year vacation. When asked about her long break years later, Sandra said she looked at the work she’d been doing and wasn’t too happy with it. Odds are Divine Secrets was included in that list, not because it’s a bad movie, but because it’s such a forgettable one.
The best material in the film isn’t the Siddalee section at all, but the flashbacks to Vivi as a young woman. These scenes aren’t anything spectacular, but at least they have the occasional instances of raw emotion. In the present day scenes, a lot of the comedy is too over-the-top to work well, and the only laugh-out-loud moments come from Smith, who gets the best one-liners (“It took me twenty-five years to find out my husband was gay”). Sandra does the best she can with what she’s given to do. The early scene of her talking to her mother on the phone is memorable, but once she gets stuck in a cabin for the middle chunk of the movie, she just basically lays around in her PJs and reminisces about the old days. Not exactly exciting.
So much of Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood reminds the viewer of 1996’s A Time to Kill. Why? Divine Secrets was based on a bestselling novel, as was A Time to Kill. One of the subjects it deals with is racism, like A Time to Kill. Most of the film is set in the south, like A Time to Kill. Divine Secrets reteamed Sandra and Judd, who co-starred in A Time to Kill, and in both films, they never act in one scene together! And lastly, almost eerily, the same tune is featured prominently in important scenes: “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.”
Overall, while 2002 was a year filled with a lot of Sandra, only her third film of the year — Two Weeks Notice, with Hugh Grant — could be described as actually good. Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood is a more interesting film than the lackluster thriller Murder by Numbers, and unfortunately, like that film, the best material in Divine Secrets is without Sandra. We Sandra fans are always happy just to see her on the screen, even if it is in a dreadful mess like Premonition or All About Steve (more on those later), but whenever possible, we prefer her in good movies. We know when Sandra is presented with a solid script and a good director that she can be great, but, like in the case of Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, she doesn’t always have the best material to work with.
Best Scene: Sandra receives a phone call from her disgraced momma.
Best Line: “I don’t want to get all scrappy!”
Bette Midler was one of the executive producers.
Sandra was nominated for a Teen Choice Award for Choice Actress, Drama/Action Adventure.
The film was based on the Rebecca Wells novel, as well as its prequel collection of short stories, Little Altars Everywhere.