Published February 1, 1999
The Other Sister, directed by Garry Marshall, tells the story of Carla Tate (Juliette Lewis), a young woman of 22 or 23 who, because she is mentally retarded, has spent most of her life in a “special school” and is now coming home, as the picture begins, to live with her well-to-do family in San Francisco. Her mother, Elizabeth (Diane Keaton) is overprotective of her and her father, a dentist played by Tom Skerritt, though more sympathetic, is too weak to moderate his wife’s smothering tendencies. She is especially exercised, as we might expect, when Carla falls in love with Daniel McMahon (Giovanni Ribisi), who is also retarded, and the point of this feel-good movie is gently to steer Carla past her mother and into normal life with just a few non-jolting bumps along the way.
Its purpose, in other words, is not to shock us (as real art does) with unexpected realities, or to make us see something new in the world, something true and something real, for the first time. Like propaganda and other forms of pseudo-art, it is instead an appeal to complacency, designed to make us feel good about ourselves and comfortable and self-righteous. We come away not with an increased sensitivity to others but with an increased pride in our own sympathies, engaged as they are by the charming Carla and artificially compared with those of her overprotective mother. Mom is meant to stand for all the prejudices that we, wise and fortunate people, have happily overcome. And, as if it were not enough that we were being offered the opportunity for smugness about our superior sympathy for the retarded, we get another smug injection for being more tolerant than mom is of another sister, Heather (Sarah Paulson), who is a lesbian. Her mother actually thinks Heather will “outgrow” her sexual orientation!
It’s not hard for us to feel more enlightened than that. But the result is an excess of self-congratulation which makes the inevitable humor of Carla’s and Daniel’s lovable stupidity seem to me offensively patronizing. Much of it is excessively cute, especially that concerned with the couple’s sexual initiation. “I wonder who thought up sex in the first place Daniel?” asks Carla.
“I think it was Madonna, actually,” replies Daniel.
This is too pat, too perfect, too calculated. Too adorable by a long way. Just like the movie. This doughy sentiment, it is true, is leavened by a bit of ham-fisted satire of Mom’s less than noxious social snobbery. Carla is made miserable trying to learn to play tennis because mom says that “all well-bred girls play tennis, chess or bridge.” She tries to introduce Carla into the Junior League set, and she lets all the dogs loose at an animal charity fete. Mom is also hard on a third sister (Poppy Montgomery) for being content as a second grade teacher instead of aspiring to teach at the college level. But such stuff is only there to give mom a few politically incorrect attitudes to overcome along the way to complete acceptance of Carla’s romance and eventual marriage with Daniel — and, not just coincidentally, the other daughter’s lesbianism. At last mom learns to be as wise and tolerant as we are, and so all is well with the world.