Two months shy of her 21st birthday but already with enough partying in her past to give Keith Richards a hangover, Lindsay Lohan has more baggage than luisvuitton.com as she stars in "Georgia Rule."
And she's playing a deeply troubled party girl.
Is Lohan tapping into the continuing soap opera that is her own life to deliver such strong work, or does she have that much talent as an actress?
Maybe it's some of both. In any case, it's a shame Lohan's best work to date is bogged down in a film that wants to be in the same league as "Terms of Endearment" but is only marginally better than "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood."
It's to Lohan's credit that for much of the "Georgia Rule" experience, one can forget her problems (including the infamous letter from the CEO of Morgan Creek Productions about her allegedly unprofessional behavior while filming this very movie) and focus on her memorable performance -- but when she's called a slut by a group of girls, or when her stepfather talks about her drug-taking, car-wrecking escapades, it's tough to separate the character she's playing from her messy life.
And that's just sad.
Bearing a passing resemblance to a young Ann-Margret and flouncing about in flimsy tops and short-shorts, Lohan's Rachel is a recent high school graduate and full-time Girl Gone Wild who has a loathe-hate relationship with her icy-cold and often heavily soused mother Lilly (Felicity Huffman). Even though Lilly hasn't seen her own (widowed) mother in 13 years, she arranges to have Rachel spend the summer at Grandma Georgia's house in Idaho -- in the same house where Lilly had her own miserable adolescence.
Jane Fonda has the lovably cranky grandmother role that usually goes to Shirley MacLaine, and I am so pleased to report Fonda is wonderful in a role that almost makes me forget her comeback in the multiple-car wreck that was "Monster-in-Law." Watching over the neighbor boys as a surrogate mother, issuing one of her "Georgia Rules" (take the Lord's name, you get your mouth washed out with soap; come down late for breakfast, you'll have to wait for lunch), gaining Rachel's respect through tough love, Fonda's Georgia is the genuine thing. We believe she's lived in that little slice of Americana for a long time.
Lilly always has thought of that town as a quiet hell, and she's glad to leave Rachel in Idaho and get back to San Francisco and Rachel's stepfather, a wealthy attorney (Cary Elwes). After a heated argument with her daughter and a chillier but equally angry exchange with her mother, Lilly disappears from the story, and we settle in to a comfortable, fish-out-of-water stretch.
Rachel shocks the local Mormons with her behavior and (in one case) her extremely casual attitude toward oral sex -- but she also learns a few life lessons from her grandmother and from Simon, a kind but sad-eyed veterinarian (Dermot Mulroney, looking more like Eric Roberts every day) who almost married Rachel's mother back in the day.
As if there's not enough tragedy in the back stories of the main characters, it turns out that Simon lost his wife and son in an accident a few years ago.
It's well done, but mostly by-the-numbers tragi-comedy. Female-friendly director Garry Marshall ("Pretty Woman," "Beaches," and "Raising Helen") never met an obvious joke he wouldn't use, so we have characters saying things like, "California -- land of fruits and nuts," which would have seemed dated in a Neil Simon screenplay circa 1967.
Then Rachel drops a bombshell as she urges Simon to shed the noble-widower routine. She tells him she's a survivor, too, because her stepfather started sleeping with her when she was 12.
"Georgia Rule" then yanks us back and forth, as we're not sure if Rachel really was abused or if she has concocted the most horrible lie of her deceit-riddled life. The moment when Lilly hears the accusations from her own daughter yields an astonishing piece of acting from Huffman, who literally collapses in anguish. But Lilly's subsequent extended meltdown, involving horrific drinking and public nudity and ritualistic hair-cutting, goes over the top to the point where we feel as if we're in a different movie. (It doesn't help that Cary Elwes plays the stepfather as such a slimeball. Even if Rachel did invent this incredibly hurtful accusation, the guy seems like a phony.) By the time we learn the truth, we've been emotionally pummeled to the point of not caring as much as we should.
This is a frustrating film. Some scenes are so well-written and so well-acted -- but the jokey stuff about virgin Mormons and local yokels with their pet pigs and birds is overplayed, and there are some jarringly R-rated moments. (Do we really need to see Lohan wrestling on the lawn with a kid of about 12 and commenting on his state of excitement?) The ending packs an emotional punch, but the last steps to that conclusion are wobbly.
As for Lohan, she's not a great beauty -- especially with the heavy tan and gooey lip gloss she employs here -- but she's undeniably sexy and camera-friendly, and she delivers her lines with the ease of someone who's been acting since she was a child. She's good. Maybe she can become an actress of note if she gets her stuff together off-screen.
The character Lohan plays is 17 -- about three years younger than Lohan in real life.
You wish Lohan had had a real Georgia in her life right about then.