After six feature films in 13 years, it's safe to assume writer-director Nick Cassavetes will never be confused with his late father, indie pioneer/auteur John Cassavetes. If Cassavetes Senior's films were (deliberately) rough around the edges and seemingly improvised (even when they weren't), Cassavetes Junior occasionally errs on the side of slickness. Exxon Valdez oil spill slickness. Take My Sister's Keeper, Cassavetes' alternately moving and insidious adaptation of Jodi Picoult's bestselling novel. Cassavetes displayed his tearjerker chops with 2004's The Notebook, and Keeper proves that he hasn't lost his touch at wringing emotions. But while Notebook worked because the lead performances by star-crossed lovers Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams were so classy you could (almost) forgive the crass manipulations of its icky Nicholas Sparks source material, Cassavetes' latest borders on Hallmark porn ("Let's all feel good about feeling bad"). Or maybe it's just because the directorial hand is so heavy-handed this time (nearly as ponderous as in Cassavetes' muddled 2002 medical melodrama John Q, his worst film to date.
The story of an 11-year-old girl (Little Miss Sunshine cutie Abigail Breslin) who sues her parents for "medical emancipation," My Sister's Keeper has such a loaded, Lifetime Movie premise that it can't help but get under your skin. Conceived in vitro as a genetic match for older sister/cancer patient Kate (Sofia Vassilieva), Anna decides that enough is enough when she hires a lawyer (Alec Baldwin) to take her case. Because Kate will probably die if she doesn't get Anna's kidney, her parents (Jason Patric and Cameron Diaz, both very good) are understandably apoplectic upon hearing the news. By withholding the true reason behind Anna's decision until the courtroom climax, the movie is guilty of the most flagrant type of audience baiting. (The whole "medical emancipation" angle turns out to be a gimmicky red herring.) Also problematic is the use of five narrators (kid brother Jesse brings up the rear) to provide multiple perspectives when one coherently articulated point of view would have sufficed. (That literary device worked far better in Picoult's book.) The most troubling aspect of the film is the faint whiff of exploitation that lurks around the edges. I admire Cassavetes for his courage in not soft pedaling the ravages of cancer: Kate's vomiting, nosebleeds, et al. Yet too often it feels like wallowing in misery strictly for the sake of hijacking our tear ducts. "Insidious" indeed. **