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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


She doesn't get enough credit for it, but Cameron Diaz is a fairly ambitious actress. While she's often willing to play the babe, the hottie, or the sex bomb in stuff like the The Sweetest Thing, What Happens in Vegas or the Charlie's Angels flicks, Diaz also takes on the occasional darker role, such as the rehabbing party girl in In Her Shoes, the fiercely independent pickpocket in Gangs of New York, or the sexually awakened housewife in Being John Malkovich. November 17 brings the DVD release of My Sister's Keeper, based on the Jodi Picoult novel, which finds the actress in a deeper mode yet again. She's terrific, but unfortunately the story (as presented on screen, at least) lets her down.

Diaz plays Sara Fitzgerald, a mother of three married to firefighter Brian (Jason Patric). Their beloved daughter Kate (Sofia Vassilieva) was diagnosed with leukemia years earlier, and in response, they had another daughter, Anna (Abigail Breslin), genetically engineered to be a perfect-match donor. Anna has spent the intervening time donating blood and bone marrow to her sister, in order to prolong her life. Kate's condition worsens, requiring her to need a kidney transplant. Anna, no longer wanting to put herself through uncomfortable and often painful procedures, decides to sue her parents for "medical emancipation." She hires attorney Campbell Alexander (Alec Baldwin) to argue her case.

Needless to say, this does not go over well with Sara, who feels that Anna should want to help her sister. Anna does, of course, but she's grown tired of having her own health jeopardized. Brian is caught in the middle; he, too, fears what will happen if Kate doesn't get the transplant, yet also acknowledges Anna's right to have a say about what happens to her own body. While the legal battle rages on, Kate's health deteriorates to crisis levels.

I think you will agree that this is a profound and compelling premise. Regrettably, My Sister's Keeper seems intent on being about everything but that premise. After introducing it early on and piquing our interest, the film proceeds to go off on a number of tangents that take us away from Anna's lawsuit. We see Kate fall in love with another cancer patient. Sara and Brian's marriage starts to crumble. Their only son, Jesse (Evan Ellingson), rages over being ignored in the midst of family turmoil. None of this stuff is anywhere near as engrossing as Anna's fight to decide for herself.

When the movie does finally get back to Anna's lawsuit in the last act, it does so via a series of absurd courtroom scenes where characters give the kind of self-serving speeches that no sane judge would ever allow. Then, in the final insult, the plot trots out a twist that completely invalidates everything that has come before. I could not believe that the story betrayed itself in this manner. If you're going to be about something, be about it; don't pretend to be about it when really you're trying to be about something else. (In fairness, I have not read Picoult's novel, so perhaps the movie is just following her lead. Regardless, it's a bad, bad choice.)

This is all a shame because My Sister's Keeper has a lot going for it, starting with heartfelt performances. Cameron Diaz is very good as the determined mother who feels it's her obligation to fight for her daughter, no matter what. Abigail Breslin is also terrific, once again displaying an admirable ability to avoid being precocious. Part of the reason I wanted to see more of Anna's story is because Breslin is so sympathetic here as she tries to get Sara to fight as vehemently for her as she does for Kate. Jason Patric makes an impression too…or at least he does during his surprisingly brief amount of screen time (more on that in a minute).

Director Nick Cassavetes (The Notebook) knows a thing or two about tearjerkers, and he stages some individual scenes that are very affecting, most notably one in which Sara and Brian argue about whether it's safe to take the ailing Kate to the beach. The moment in which Sara and Anna square off about the lawsuit is even better. I think Cassavetes relies too often on music montages (there are probably seven or eight in the film), but in general he manages to pull off enough moments to make you realize that this might have been a modern-day Terms of Endearment.

The problem is that script, which keeps pushing Anna into the background of her own story, only to cheat her out of the resolution she deserves. My Sister's Keeper is an example of how one or two bad choices can sink an otherwise worthy film. Had the picture stayed true to what it was supposed to be about, I think we'd have had a real winner on our hands. By failing to do so, the film simply evaporates from your memory almost as soon as it is over.

( out of four)

DVD Features:

My Sister's Keeper hits DVD on November 17, from Warner Home Video. It is presented in your choice of fullscreen or widescreen formats. A digital copy of the movie comes included on the disc.

The sole bonus feature on the DVD is a 15-minute collection of deleted scenes, which compromise much of Jason Patric's work on the film; apparently most of his work hit the editing room floor. The best is a sequence in which Brian is called to testify in court and subsequently ends up having the conversation with Sara that he needed to have a long time ago. This, to me, seems so crucial to the story that its deletion from the final cut is inexplicable.

The Blu-Ray edition is scheduled to have these deleted scenes as well as "From Picoult to Screen" - a look at the author's inspirations for the story and how it was transferred from page to screen.

My Sister's Keeper is rated PG-13 for mature thematic content, some disturbing images, sensuality, language, and brief teen drinking. The running time is 1 hour and 49 minutes.

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