Garry Marshall is not what one would call any edgy filmmaker, making a career out of frequently schmaltzy comedies (1999's "Runaway Bride
," 2001's "The Princess Diaries
," 2004's "Raising Helen
") and none-too-subtle tearjerkers (1988's "Beaches," 1999's "The Other Sister
"). Heck, he even made a movie about a Los Angeles hooker into an unthreatening fairy tale (1990's "Pretty Woman"). While a few moments of his trademark sentimentality and stereotypical portrayals of side characters sneak through, "Georgia Rule" is probably as tough a film as he is ever going to make. For potential viewers expecting a lighthearted, female-bonding romp or a kid-friendly Lindsay Lohan-starrer, which is what the trailers and television ads would like you to believe, think again; this is strictly R-rated material that covers such heavy topics as neglect, alcoholism and child molestation.
When her daughter's rebellious ways get to be too much for her to handle, Lilly (Felicity Huffman) uproots 17-year-old Rachel (Lindsay Lohan) from her home in San Francisco and drops her in the dusty mountain town of Hull, Idaho, to stay with estranged grandmother Georgia (Jane Fonda) for the summer. Defiant at first to Georgia's firm rules, Rachel eventually decides to make a go of her new surroundings, getting a job as an assistant to widowed veterinarian Simon (Dermot Mulroney) and knowingly acting as sexual temptress to Harlan (Garrett Hedlund), a virginal Mormon around her age who is preparing to leave in a few months for a two-year missionary program. When Rachel declares that she was molested by stepfather Arnold (Cary Elwes), Lilly returns to her old hometown in an attempt to figure out if her daughter is telling the truth or aiming to get attention. This sudden reunion of three generations of women opens a floodgate of old wounds and regrets that is either going to tear them further apart or act as a first step in healing their dysfunctional relationships.
"Georgia Rule" was written with a forthright brazenness by Mark Andrus (2001's "Life as a House
"), who doesn't steer away from the realities of sexual activity and the way people talkthe "F"-word, for instance, is sprinkled throughout whenever the situation calls for it. Story-wise, the film is stagnant for long periods, but as a simple study in human behavior and vulnerability, it is effectively low-key and engrossing. The string-laden music score by John Debney (2006's "Idlewild
") tends to invade a handful of moments when it isn't called for, but otherwise, director Garry Marshall should be commended for the relative dramatic restraint and sympathetic care he brings to his characters. Much of the second half hinges on whether or not Rachel is being honest about her claims of molestation, and it is a testament to the depth with which she has been written that this back-and-forth did-she-or-didn't-she never feels like a cloying plot device.
A lot is being made in the press about this film's pastduring production, Lindsay Lohan was sent a public letter from producer James G. Robinson chastising her for not showing up on the set and delaying the filming. If this is all people have to gossip about in regards to "Georgia Rule," it is doing a grave disservice to the actress in question. Simply put, Lindsay Lohan is fantastic as the troubled Rachel; she carries off the complicated lead role with the charisma and confidence of a genuinely talented artist, and not some irresponsible party girl that the tabloids have made her out to be. Even when Rachel's motives are in question, the viewer sticks by her, unwavering in their trust of this wayward young woman trying to do right but emotionally wounded by a difficult past. With a lesser actor in the part, the Lifetime-movie subject matter of "Georgia Rule" might have collapsed under its own weight, but Lohan holds it together.
As sturdy-in-her-ways but loving grandmother Georgia, Jane Fonda (2005's "Monster-in-Law
") has less to do, but gives the role warmth and gravity. Felicity Huffman (2005's "Transamerica
") is more uneven as Lilly, hitting notes of truth and humor as she simultaneously battles the bottle and her broken bond with Rachel, but also guilty of sometimes relying on over-the-top theatrics to get her point across. As the trio of supporting male characters, Dermot Mulroney (2005's "The Wedding Date
") is nicely understated as Simon, a man unable to move past the loss of his wife and son whom Rachel clings to; Garrett Hedlund (2004's "Friday Night Lights
") is charming in an aw-shucks way as the naive Harlan; and Cary Elwes (2004's "Saw
") avoids essaying the possibly predatory Arnold as a priggish, one-note bad guy.
"Georgia Rule" is an imperfect dramedy. There are funny moments, as when a catfight between Rachel and neighborhood preteen Sam (Dylan McLaughlin) culminates in a great punchline, but also some stabs at humor that feel contrived. The dramatic moments cover the gauntlet, exhibiting poignancy as well as ingenuousness. When the film bases itself on the person-to-person interactions between characters is when it is most successfully intimate and authentic. At the center of it all is Lindsay Lohan, who steals the picture away from everyone else in sight. Even when the lack of forward motion in the narrative shines through, "Georgia Rule" is worth watching for her alone.