A heartwarming comedy-drama about child molestation, alcoholism and oral sex? Who thought that was a good idea? Garry Marshall is an old hand at weepy melodrama and inflicted Beaches (1988), the biggest nausea-fest since I Spit on Your Grave (1978), upon a defenceless world. His attempts to replicate that box-office hit, with films like Raising Helen (2004), haven’t worked out but with The Princess Diaries (2001) he gave us Anne Hathaway - so we’ll cut him some slack.
Wild child Rachel drinks, swears, screams and parties out of control. Since she’s played by Lindsay Lohan, no-one is surprised. Frustrated mom Lilly (Felicity Huffman) packs the rebellious teenager off to her grandmother’s house in rural Idaho. Matriarch Georgia (Jane Fonda) lives her life by a set of unbreakable rules, placing faith in God and hard work, and expects those living under her roof to do likewise. Struggling at first, Rachel shakes up the tiny Mormon town with her wild ways and upsets the local girls by administering oral relief to god-fearing hunk, Harlan (an endearingly dopey Garrett Hedlund). Her initially antagonistic relationship with widowed veterinarian, Simon Ward (Dermot Mulroney) - Lilly’s childhood sweetheart - blossoms into friendship. Rachel reveals to him, her stepfather Arnold (Cary Elwes) has been sexually molesting her since she was twelve. When Georgia learns of this, she brings Lilly back home, but the question remains: is Rachel telling the truth?
Despite a regular diet of kung fu, sci-fi and horror flicks, this writer isn’t averse to movies where women talk, cry and share their feelings. Sitting through Steel Magnolias (1989) or In Her Shoes (2005) isn’t a problem. However, Georgia Rule is a real slog, bogged down with so many conflicting plot-lines (lingering romance between Simon and Lilly; Hector Elizondo as a Basque weightlifter whose daughter has a crush on Harlan; vengeful local girls stalking Rachel; the uneasy sexual tension between her and Simon), one suspects it was hauled back to the editing room several times. It also suffers prolonged detours, such as when Harlan hauls Rachel on a road trip to confess their sin to his girlfriend, and dubious non-sequitors like the moment a little boy (Dylan McLaughlin) play-wrestling with Lohan suffers an embarrassing erection.
Surprisingly little is made of Rachel’s relationship with Georgia. They’re plain-speaking women with a double-dose of sass, who will either delight or drive you up the wall. Frequently, it’s the latter. A lack of focus causes headaches and patience runs out midway, once Lilly and Georgia start yelling at each other. Suddenly, Lilly’s alcoholism takes centre stage and Rachel is out in the cold. Marshall takes a heroic stab at tackling complex emotions felt by victims of child abuse, as when Rachel says she hated the sex but felt loved whenever Arnold held her, and Simon pinpoints her inability to have a normal father-daughter relationship, but the treatment is too lightweight for such a serious subject. The small town setting engages with its local eccentrics and quirky touches (a vet who treats people; majorettes who read out local news), and this is a rare movie that portrays Mormons as non-creepy and likeable. Three powerhouse actresses aren’t at their best, but Lohan occasionally reminds us how good she can be. Is it really ten years since her fresh-faced turn in Nancy Meyers’ delightful The Parent Trap (1998)? Georgia Rule strains for feel-good, but ends with more loose ends than a bucket of spaghetti. Still, it’s way better than Beaches.