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Georgia Rule

Garry Marshall's Georgia Rule is a completely vernacular movie that is saved from insignificance by its gifted cast's interesting performances and by its crackling treatment of a traumatic issue. That issue, not to dally - it's announced early enough - is child abuse. Packed off to her grandmother's home in Idaho for the last summer before Vassar, the impossible Rachel (Lindsay Lohan) lets drop that her stepfather, "the best criminal defense lawyer in California," had sex with her when she was twelve. Whether this is true or not is the question that Rachel's mother, Lilly (Felicity Huffman), must answer. Lilly's mother, Georgia (Jane Fonda), doesn't doubt Rachel for a moment, even after Rachel recants.

It's in the film's vernacular nature to drag Lilly from San Francisco back to the town that she grew up in and couldn't wait to leave, and where Simon, the town vet who occasionally treats human beings (Dermot Mulroney) remembers being wildly in love with her. It's vernacular to make Simon a widower without a family. What's not vernacular is Mr Marshall's intelligent refusal to tie up this plot line with a pretty bow. It may be that Lilly and Simon will re-unite soon, but we're spared the embarrassment of the obvious.

Ms Huffman, needless to say, gets third billing. Desperate housewife though she might be, she has nothing like the celebrity of her costars. She's the most interesting thing about the film, however, and not only because her performance is absolutely arresting. Her character is the only character on a dramatic voyage of discovery. George Rule is not about how Rachel learns to behave herself. That's another intelligent move. Sure, Rachel is a brat, and she throws up rudeness and resistance to everything, but the good people of Hull, Idaho ignore her antics, and so does the movie. She quickly becomes the victim of a hate campaign by the other girls in the town (many of them Mormon), but her matter-of-factness about sex, lamentable perhaps in one so young (seventeen) is a refreshing antidote to the girls' stuffy meanness. When she threatens to seduce their boyfriends and "fuck them stupid" if the girls don't leave her alone, she has the audience's warmest sympathy. But fundamentally she is a character falling into place. Away from the big-city sophistications, denied a platform from which to strut her stuff (Rachel reads Ezra Pound), Rachel basically chills, and, not surprisingly, becomes a nicer person.

Lilly, in contrast, deeply loves her husband, Arnold (Cary Elwes), and she loves the way of life that he makes possible, too. She needs to believe that Rachel is lying. Knowing that she needs to believe this, she doesn't trust her own judgment. A recovering alcoholic, she falls off the wagon. Ms Huffman knows how to register Lilly's confusion in way that captures the audiences sympathy because it withholds so much of Lilly's pain. As Lilly realizes that, in her determination not to be chilly and forbidding to Rachel, as she feels that Georgeia was to her, she has nonetheless failed to be a good mother. Eventually, Arnold arrives to plead his case, and there is a very good scene involving a baseball bat and a Ferrari. I won't reveal whether Rachel's initial accusation was truthful, but I will say that the matter is resolved in the most satisfactory way possible, and that I'd be very surprised to learn that the film lasts five minutes beyond that resolution.

If it were possible to be majestic and vernacular at the same time - but it is possible, because that's what Jane Fonda does throughout the movie. Her Georgia is a tough old bird, but she's generous and forgiving, and she knows when to bend one of her myriad rules. Ms Fonda is the perfect onscreen foil for Lindsay Lohan, who is essentially playing her real-life tabloid persona. Ms Lohan possesses Elizabeth Taylor's knack for being ruthlessly hard and alluringly infantile at the same time. Rachel may (or may not!) have been damaged by Arnold's attentions, but she is not one to play the blame game, and the movie sails along as lightly does because Ms Lohan seems to have found the cinematic equivalent of "What plays in Vegas, stays in Vegas."

The three male leads do excellent work. Mr Mulroney, always at least slightly melancholy, is able to convey the illusion of living with a hole in his life. Mr Elwes adds yet another high-gloss sleazoid to his CV. And Garrett Hedlund, as Harlan, the strapping farmhand whose need to be honest gets Rachel into so much hot water, is an amiable doofus. He is so vernacular, in fact, that he seems to have been dragged from another sort of movie altogether, something with "Pie" in the title.

Aside from one sick-making moment, when a scene shot on a college campus appeared to threaten a film about Rachel's learning respect for Mormon values, Georgia Rule is an open-minded treat. There is never any real doubt about where it's going to end up, but Mr Marshall keeps us guessing about just how bumped-around and scraped his characters will be when it gets there. (May 2007)

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