Georgia Rules

May, 2007, Drama

Lindsay Lohan, the 21 year-old tabloid celebrity whose escapades with club-hound friends Paris Hilton and Brittany Spears generate hefty sales for the kiss & tell magazines, finally delivers something of value in this otherwise formulaic romantic comedy directed by Gerry Marshall, the sometime actor who 17 years ago coached a breakout performance from Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman. This film won’t approach the box-office success of that blockbuster, but as a showcase for Ms. Lohan’s acting abilities, (not to mention her cherubic features, sleek contours and tumbling red hair) it’s twenty-leagues removed from the glut of syrupy Disney productions, (Freaky Friday, The Parent Trap, Herbie Fully Loaded) which have occupied her until now. As the junior member of an acting triumvirate including Jane Fonda and Felicity Huffman, Ms. Lohan more than holds her own.

Marshall got his start directing episodes of television comedy series like Laverne & Shirley, Mork & Mindy and Happy Days; having served that apprenticeship behind the camera, it’s not surprising that his 16 feature films reflect a consistent preference for schmaltz over substance. Working from a script by Mark Andrus (an Oscar nominee for the over-rated As Good As It Gets) Marshall and his trio of Hollywood stars portray three generations of a dysfunctional family grappling with the sexual abuse of  granddaughter Rachael (Lohan) by her step-father. As Georgia, the matriarch of the clan, Jane Fonda doles out unwanted advice to her alcoholic daughter Lilly (Huffman) while providing a temporary home for Rachael during the summer between her graduation from high school and planned entry into college life. Georgia presides over a comfortable home in small town Utah; Lilly and husband Arnold have banished Rachael  to Georgia’s backwater dominion from their San Francisco home because the rebellious girl’s confrontational behavior threatens their marriage and Rachael’s chances of making it into college. In the film’s early scenes, it’s not difficult to understand why.

Volumes have been written about the most appalling aspect of the sexual abuse of young females - - its potential to spawn promiscuous behavior in its victims. As she defiantly begins her stay trapped in the staid confines of Georgia’s authoritarian “rules”, Rachael plays the freckle-faced strumpet for everyone from Simon, the local veterinarian, (Dermot Mulroney) to Harlan (Garrett Hedlund) a strapping Mormon farmer already betrothed to his childhood sweetheart. Yet flashes of vulnerability and a winning sensitivity towards others temper Rachael’s outwardly vampish self-absorption; something’s eating at her and it’s not just Lilly’s drinking bouts or Georgia’s ham-fisted behavioral edicts. When she discloses in a heated exchange with Simon that Arnold sexually abused her years before, (and gave her a car to hush it up) Georgia goes ballistic and Lilly arrives to convince herself that her prevaricating daughter is at it again. Despite Lilly’s suspicions of Rachael’s haphazard way with the truth, Georgia believes her, forming a tentative alliance between them which galvanizes Lilly into a re-examination of her relationship with both. Then Arnold shows up protesting his innocence and the resulting tug of war over Lilly’s affections and Rachael’s veracity  provides intriguing twists in the storyline before an ending as predictable as it is oddly satisfying.

Despite a career marked with highly publicized marriages to disparate men and an extraordinary number of successful films, Fonda’s talent lies primarily in playing emotionally constricted characters; from Klute to Julia to On Golden Pond, she’s at her best in roles that call for a detachment that borders on the obtuse. Her best comedic roles (Cat Ballou, 9 to 5) come when she’s playing side-kick to actors with far more colorful screen personalities and that’s the case here; her anal-retentive Georgia is one-dimensional and would be completely unsympathetic were it not for the fine work of her two co-stars. As she nears her 70th birthday later this year, Ms. Fonda can thank her lucky stars for Huffman’s competency and Lohan’s charisma; they do the heavy lifting required in this curious movie which analyzes a painful and deeply serious issue with an uneven mixture of froth and gravitas. 

The storyline neatly observes Rachael’s problem as three generational; Georgia’s rigid inability to communicate affection to Lilly produces the latter’s alienation which in turn makes the perfect breeding ground for Lilly’s booze-fueled ignorance about Arnold’s abuse, which triggers Rachael’s inability to relate to her mother and deal adequately with her own sexual maturation. Conveying that psychological Tinkers-to-Evers-to-Chance in a  feature-length movie disguised as a soap opera is no mean feat.

It wouldn’t work without Lohan’s sophisticated performance; her Rachael, coltish and innocent one moment, sultry and conniving the next, provides a fascinating example of skewed seductive impulses interspersed with frantic efforts to find an effective way to break through to her mother and thus begin the process of putting her own life in order. Lohan accomplishes this by sheer dint of her ability to combine innocence and sexuality so perfectly; her minor role in last years Prairie Home Companion only hinted at the skill set this young woman posses and this role should generate more opportunities to dazzle future audiences.

Like so many Hollywood productions, this one makes a number of ham-fisted observations in depicting small town life and serious religious belief; those who live in between America’s coasts are not all Gomer Pyles, and honest commitment to the principles and traditions of one’s denomination aren’t as asinine and petty as this film portrays them in attempting to generate a few laughs as ballast for the movie’s darker themes. Marshall’s oeuvre doesn’t suggest he has either the talent or desire to shoot for much more than the obvious, and he continues that tradition here; Harlan’s a besotted doofus and his finance and her friends harridans; Lilly’s drunken escapades offer little more than an opportunity to ogle Huffman’s nicely buffed physique. But interspersed with the director’s typical fluff are some insidiously threatening moments; a wrestling match between a 12 year old boy mowing Georgia’s lawn and Rachael grows frighteningly verbal and her dogged, needy seduction of Harlan in a row boat shortly thereafter perfectly conveys Rachael’s inability to distinguish between sex and genuine affection. 

Georgia Rules winds up marrying Andy Griffith’s Mayberry with Nabakov’s Lolita; the results are decidedly uneven, but Ms. Lohan makes this an interesting two hours.         

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