1999 - Cinema’s Greatest Year Ever: THE OTHER SISTER

Evan is flabbergasted.

The Other Sister has always seemed like an urban legend to me. I knew it existed but found its premise difficult to believe and sort of assumed I heard wrong or there was some miscommunication. There’s just no way someone would make a romantic dramedy where Juliette Lewis and Giovanni Ribisi play mentally challenged youngsters who fall in love.

Well, now I’ve seen it and can confirm - someone DID make a romantic dramedy where Juliette Lewis and Giovanni Ribisi play mentally challenged youngsters who fall in love. His name is Garry Marshall, a wonderful man you may know from his many Comedy Bang! Bang! appearances.

In a way, I can understand the “we never tried THIS angle before!” appeal of The Other Sister. It offers a new kind of movie romance for people to fawn over, with an added jolt of condescending warmth and sweetness audiences loved five years earlier with Forrest Gump. It also had the benefit of Juliette Lewis and Giovanni Ribisi, two actors seemingly put on this planet to play mentally challenged people. From that perspective, sure. Why not make The Other Sister?

And perhaps there is a version of this movie that could work. This isn’t it, however. Instead, Garry Marshall’s The Other Sister is an offensive clash of tones, fantasy, and old people fears that I found flat-out embarrassing from beginning to end. It also warmed my heart a little.

The film focuses on Juliette Lewis’ Carla Tate as she tries to make her way in a big, confusing world filled with people who are only slightly stupid instead of all the way stupid. Carla just graduated from a short bus school which provided her family with very few opportunities to visit as she grew up. She has two sisters. One is about to get married (to a very young Joe Flanagan, the actor who very nearly ruined JCVD’s awesome 6 Bullets); the other, played by the seemingly eternal Sarah Paulson, is a lesbian. They are both very nice and supportive of Carla.

Things get a bit more iffy when it comes to Clara’s parents. While Clara enjoys the unwavering, shrugging support of her father Radley, played by a mustache-free Tom Skerritt, her mother Elizabeth, played by Diane Keaton, has a hard time accepting Clara’s independence. See, Clara is mentally handicapped, but she will not let this beat her down. She wants to go to college, she wants to get a good job, she wants to live in her own apartment, and she wants to get married. Elizabeth meets each of these needs by saying “You can’t do that,” having a fight with Clara, then finally accepting Clara’s independence after discussing it with shrugging Tom Skerritt. As soon as she jumps that hurdle, Clara hits her with another.

So maybe Clara needs to give her mom more time to adjust to her increasing demands for independence. On the other hand, however, this is just as much a movie about Diane Keaton being an asshole as it is about Clara falling in love with her mental equal. Elizabeth not only has an issue with Clara gaining independence, but also kind of shirks her lesbian daughter’s long term partner for years, and generally freaks out about stupid bullshit a lot, forcing saintly Tom Skerritt to shrug his way through countless one-sided confrontations with her. What is their problem? I have it here in picture form:

Because of this, and the REAL other sister’s wedding malarky, The Other Sister runs over two hours long, and while there is a perverse pleasure to watching such an amazing train wreck, you still feel every one of those minutes. It’s not structured well enough to just be a fun bad movie.

How bad is it? It’s pretty awful. For one, Juliette Lewis, a good actress who you’d think could pull this off, plays Clara more like a regular person with a speech impediment than someone with a mentally disability. She basically just talks in a baby voice and yells a lot. It’s totally embarrassing.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. A lot of The Other Sister’s problems have to do with tone. It wants to be a lot cuter than it is. So when Clara struggles through one of her mother’s mandated tennis lessons, we hear “She Drives Me Crazy” on the soundtrack like we’re watching some kind of late ‘80s Corey & Corey movie. Actually, a ton of the movie feels like it was made in the 1980s. The only real giveaway is a Smashmouth song.

We also have Garry Marshall’s strange perspective on the world to endure. This is an impossibly nice, sweet view of humanity. Until it’s not. So when Clara goes to school for the first time, she gets catcalls and offers to buy drugs from all the College hooligans hanging around. They are white, thank god, but still.

And then there’s the central romance. While Juliette Lewis fails to make this part work, Giovanni Ribisi has a lot more luck nailing the physicality of his character, Danny. I think he might be wearing fake teeth, however, which is kind of a cheat. But he at least blinks a lot and does that roaming fingers thing a lot of actors do when playing mentally challenged characters.

With the romance comes a lot of questionable but hilarious sex stuff. I don’t really have words to describe this, so I hope these screen grabs will be sufficient:

I don’t know how much veracity there is in the idea that two mentally challenged people would glob onto each other like this. Maybe it happens all the time. But it nevertheless feels like an amazingly Hollywood conceit. Danny and Carla fall in love largely by default. They sort of get to know each other by trying to figure out the city’s bussing system and watching The Graduate over and over again. Seriously, bussing and The Graduate are prominent enough to be considered subplots. This is especially funny regarding The Graduate. They are both very taken by the part where Dustin Hoffman interrupts Katharine Ross’ wedding, so much so that Danny at one point recreates the scene kind of like in Wayne’s World 2. But when we see them watch the film, they actually turn it off before the happy onscreen couple takes that uncertain bus ride. It seems explicit that Garry Marshall would prefer we forget that part and its implications so he can suck up all the sweetness for his own film, ignoring the original’s sour coda. Diabolical!

Despite the sea of bullshit at play in The Other Sister, and despite the film’s sluggish pacing and bloated running time, I have to admit it pulled my heartstrings now and then, particularly any time Hector Elizondo’s musician/painter/Vietnam vet shows up to be Dennis’ unofficial caretaker and best pal. But most of the movie is pretty rough to behold. A sense of genuine embarrassment (I know I’ve used that word already, but there’s no better way to put it) kind of ruins any of the fun goofiness one might mine from the movie. Having said all that, I do feel like this is one of the best movies from the best year in cinematic history. If only for this: