Ushers should prepare themselves to get out the mops for My Sister’s Keeper, as small rivulets of tears coalesce into a Mississippi Delta at the bottom of the theater after each showing. But director Nick Cassavetes, who soaked his share of hankies with the 2004 sleeper hit The Notebook, doesn’t know the difference between good tears and bad ones. He just greedily draws them out of a scenario so bleak and heart-wrenching that it needs no further emphasis, let alone the dirgey cover of “Girls Just Want To Have Fun.” Based on Jodi Picoult’s bestseller, the film includes a multitude of combustible elements: a little girl with leukemia, another little girl genetically manipulated to be a “donor child,” a dyslexic boy so neglected that he hangs out at night on Hollywood Boulevard, a mother whose unwavering devotion to one daughter threatens to blow a hole through her family like a wrecking ball. The list goes on.
A subtler filmmaker might have undercut the emotions a little, but Cassavetes learned just one thing about melodrama from his father John, and that’s to go heavy on the throttle. The real tragedy is that he gets several terrific performances from his actors, including a career-best Cameron Diaz as a rampaging super-mom who refuses to give up on her cancer-stricken daughter (Sofia Vassilieva), even if it means neglecting her husband (Jason Patric) and her other two children. In fact, her youngest daughter (Abigail Breslin) was conceived as a vessel for compatible, harvestable parts, like bone marrow and a kidney. At age 11, Breslin hires a lawyer (Alec Baldwin, bringing rare, precious comic relief) to win control over her own body.
At its core, My Sister’s Keeper wrestles with a gratifyingly complex situation: Breslin’s lawsuit is both selfish and righteous, as is her mother’s expectation of involuntary sacrifice from one daughter to save the other. But the film keeps piling on the tear-jerking pathos, from a judge (Joan Cusack, also excellent) whose 12-year-old daughter was recently killed by a drunk driver to a doe-eyed romance between two terminal cancer cases. It would take a heart of stone not to be affected by My Sister’s Keeper, but the film’s unceasing manipulation has a Medusa effect on the organ.