Sister Cities full movie review - Somewhat disappointing after reading the play
First, let me say that I watched Sister Cities twice, once with commercials, once without. Far, far better without. This film should be seen only that way.
Second, the adaptation from stage play to screen script was disappointing to me. I had some concerns early on when I heard about the expanded cast, but I figured since the playwright Colette Freedman was doing the adaptation, she'd only open the play visually and with a few flashbacks for fill-in background. Unfortunately, the premise and the focus of the film is changed from the play and it's that change that bothered me. What had been a play about four sisters who had drifted apart over recent years only to be reunited over the mystery of their mother's death became a movie about the mother, her illness, and the daughter who took care of her.
The play is about the sisters. There is only one scene, albeit significant, between the mother and Austin in flashback about mid-way through. That's sufficient to let the audience in on the mother's suffering, Austin's care-giving, and the mother's death. The dialogue is fast-paced, witty, sarcastic, humorous, biting, mixed with pathos, sympathy, love especially in the first half. Through this dialogue you learn each of the sisters' background, place in the family, and what their lives are today. You also find out the mother was absent, at least emotionally, much of the time as well as the fact that the sisters are actually half-sisters. Carolina takes the lead, which is all the reader or viewer needs in order to understand her role in the family. It is why her decision to report Austin is accepted by the two youngest and why she has to be the one drugged by Austin.
The movie loses much of the humor in the dialogue, drags through too many outside scenes and characters, and even got the crucial drugging scene wrong. In the play, Carolina is fully conscious the entire time. She can see and hear everything going on, including the conversation that this is exactly what ALS had done to their mother. She cannot feel, she cannot move, but she's there the entire time and expresses her horrified reactions through her eyes. This effect is negated in the movie by having Carolina rendered unconscious by the drug, which made no sense.
By changing the focus, the film became a disease-of-the-week type of TV movie creating a much larger role for the mother, at two ages no less, and greatly expanding Austin's role. In turn, that necessarily weakened the other sisters' roles, both in depth and screen time. It all leaves me wondering what was left on the editing room floor.
For me the flashbacks were overdone. Some with (old) Mary and Austin repeated the same info and several served no purpose at all. This was true of the new characters and expanded scenes: the book signing and meeting Austin's girlfriend, Austin's meeting with her publisher, and Austin's interaction with her father. The Thanksgiving dinner scene showed the beginning of Mary's ALS, her secrecy from all but Austin, and the fact that at one time this family was capable of a happy time together. The worse for me was the lengths the film took to commit the assisted suicide. It hit all the clichés -- pot, alcohol, pills, drowning -- and it went on for an eternity.
Good stuff: -- For a film shot in only 17 days, it looked good. The camera work, set design, lighting, music all were excellent. -- The acting was solid, ranging from fair to very good, even outstanding in moments. The Baltimore and Dallas characters were so watered down, so one-dimensional in the film, neither actress had much to do. But both Troian Bellisario and Michelle Trachtenburg did well with what was given them. As a character, Carolina didn't fare much better. I thought Stana Katic did a good job overall. IMO her outstanding moments were when she was alone in the kitchen, in front of the mirror, and apologizing to Dallas for teasing her. What a tour de force it would have been to see what she could have done had they kept her character conscious while drugged. -- The Austin character was changed so much from the play that she was hardly recognizable. She's strong physically and psychologically in the play. The movie made her too weak, too much a sacrificial lamb. Still, Jess Weixler did an excellent job carrying the emotion throughout, although I tired of seeing her crying and victimized most of the time. -- Jacki Weaver's best scene was the letter-writing, which was not in the play.
Had I not been familiar with the play, I might have enjoyed the movie more. One word summary: Disappointing.