Sunday, November 15, 2009

Georgia Rule (Universal, 2007)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

This morning I watched a quirky movie I’d recorded yesterday on Lifetime called Georgia Rule, about three generations of a monumentally dysfunctional family: Lilly (Felicity Huffman), wife of a successful and well-respected defense attorney in San Francisco, has despaired of keeping control of her daughter Rachel (Lindsay Lohan) and therefore has decided that, now that she’s graduated from high school and is supposed to start at Vassar in the fall, she’s going to send Rachel to Hull, Idaho to spend the summer with Georgia (Jane Fonda), Lilly’s mother, a highly judgmental and strict person who literally washes out with soap the mouths of people who take the Lord’s name in vain and has invented a whole peculiar series of injunctions, do’s and don’ts by which she makes her daughter, her granddaughter and everyone else in her orbit — including two of the neighbor kids who come over and hang out with her for reasons which boggle the imagination — live by, and whenever anyone questions any of her pronouncements she smiles sweetly — or as sweetly as she can under the circumstances — and says, “Georgia Rule,” hence the film’s title. (As the film progressed she reminded me more and more of my mother.)

On the way to Hull Rachel bolts from the car in which Lilly is driving her there (“Why can’t we just fly like normal people?” she asked earlier), walks a few miles until she collapses, is rescued by an attractive long-haired young man named Harlan (Garrett Hedlund) and commandeers a ride from a tall, lanky, sandy-haired man named Simon (Dermot Mulroney). From there one would expect from writer Mark Andrus and director Garry Marshall a simple city-bad, country-good fable in which Georgia’s stern old-world country-bred values seize control of Rachel and Make a Good Woman Out of Her, but instead the filmmakers throw us some intriguing curveballs. When Rachel first met Simon, she judged from the absence of a wedding ring on his finger and the fact that he didn’t make a pass at her that he was Gay (indeed, I was rather hoping it would turn out he was Gay and Harlan was his boyfriend!), but later on Simon tells Rachel that his wife and their son were killed in a car accident three years earlier — and Rachel plays a game of can-you-top-this with him by saying that she was regularly abused sexually by her stepfather Arnold (Cary Elwes), the big-shot attorney. Later Rachel says that she just made that up, but for much of the rest of the film Marshall and Andrus keep us in a state of suspense as to whether she was molested or not.

It also turns out that Lilly is an alcoholic, and while she’s sober at the start of the film she does a spectacular back-flip off the wagon when Rachel’s revelation reaches her — and if that weren’t enough in the way of surprise, it also turns out that Lilly dated Simon before either of them met the partners with whom they had their kids, and the banked flames between them flare up briefly in Simon’s office (he’s officially a veterinarian but he occasionally treats his patients’ companion humans as well) and it looks like they’re about to fuck then and there except Lilly draws back, probably because Rachel has a job working as Simon’s receptionist and bill collector and Lilly doesn’t want her daughter catching her doing the down and dirty with the boss. Rachel is drawn even beyond the usual fish-out-of-water stereotype as a virtual apparition, a creature so alien to the conservative mores of Hull, Idaho she couldn’t be more out of place if she’d beamed in from another planet — and, like a lot of real-life child sexual abuse victims, she’s also depicted as a woman used to getting what she wants through sex and willing to seduce just about anybody as a way of manipulating them. She gets Harlan to let her go down on him during a boat ride on the local lake; later she crashes Simon’s motel room and tries to seduce him; and Simon gives her a fatherly lecture (let’s face it, we know that one of the places this movie is going is to get Simon and Lilly back together and thereby put Simon in loco parentis to Rachel) to the effect that all her life she’s been using sex and drugs (did I mention that Rachel drank and took drugs? She’s an alienated teenager in a movie, isn’t she?) to overcome the lack of legitimate physical affection from her parents.

It’s also acknowledged in the writing that Rachel isn’t the first rebel in her family; Lilly herself started drinking and took up with an out-of-towner (Rachel’s dad, whose background and fate are otherwise completely concealed from us) to get away from her mother and the stifling “Georgia rules.” The film ends with Lilly in her own car (a Mercedes) driving back to San Francisco with Arnold — she’s ready to reconcile with her husband after deciding her daughter lied about him — when Arnold’s sudden willingness to leave his Ferrari behind in Hull and give it to Rachel as a present (or a bribe) convinces Lilly that Arnold did molest Rachel after all. “She seduced me!” he protests (giving the lame excuse a lot of molesters give), and she orders him to pull the car over and let her out — and sure enough Georgia, Simon and Harlan, who’ve been following them, pull up, pick her up and take her back to Idaho, where it’s established that Simon and Lilly will pair off — as will Harlan and Rachel once he completes his two-year mission in the Mormon Church.

Though Georgia Rule is well and truly to the Lifetime manner born, the star power on both sides of the camera and the presence of an MPAA rating (R, “for sexual content and some language” — though in the Lifetime version, edited down from a 112-minute theatrical release, there’s only a hint of soft-core porn and any swear words darker than “God” are left on the cutting-room floor), as well as the use of actual Los Angeles locations instead of Canadian ones (though frankly Canada might have been more credible as Idaho!) indicate that Universal intended this one to be shown theatrically, and it shows in the somewhat more complex interrelationships between the characters than usual for Lifetime. It helps that Jane Fonda, Felicity Huffman and Lindsay Lohan are believable (barely) as three generations of the same family; that Fonda brings her customary authority to her role even though sometimes it seems like she’s rehashing On Golden Pond 25 years later with her character on the other end of the generational divide; and that Lohan — albeit in a part tailored to fit her off-screen image as the tabloids have been feeding it to us for years — is surprisingly good, acting with power, conviction and authority that suggest if she can conquer her personal demons she can still turn in credible performances that will remake her reputation and convince people she’s a talented actress and not just a tabloid-created freak.