Georgia Rule

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      Starring Lindsay Lohan, Jane Fonda, and Felicity Huffman. Rated 14A. Now playing at the Cinemark Tinseltown and the Fifth Avenue Cinemas

      Warning: Georgia Rule is one of those earnestly acted family dramas that'll leave you riddled with guilt if you don't empathize with its female characters. Letting down the sisterhood and all that. So because the movie failed miserably to tap my compassion for its authoritarians, drunks, and whores, I am dutifully wearing a "Heartless Witch" sandwich board. Director Garry Marshall should be pleased that, if nothing else, he's made a chick flick that will stir up post-film debate.

      In what amounts to a skank apologia, Marshall's decidedly unfunny drama centres on Rachel, a wild San Francisco teen (Lindsay Lohan) whose alcoholic mom, Lilly (Felicity Huffman), dumps her with her own strict Idaho mother, Georgia (Jane Fonda), for the summer. There, the precocious Rachel, in a skimpy eyelet minidress, shoots her sexuality from every pore and freckle, stunning every man and horrifying every woman in her vicinity. A scene where Rachel bestows a blow job on an affianced Mormon virgin (Garrett Hedlund) and is later stalked by his affronted fiancée is as bigoted as it is far-fetched. But it's in keeping with the film's other puzzling actions and unrealistic motives and responses.

      Georgia Rule refers to the unbreakable laws laid down at Rachel's grandma's house, where mouths are washed out with soap if the Lord's name is taken in vain. It's hardly the stuff of nightmares. So although the movie wants us to interpret Granny Georgia's rigid attitude as the wellspring of her womenfolk's soused and debauched ways, she seems the sanest of the trio. You know something's gone awry when Hanoi Jane, creaking along the comeback trail in a plaid housecoat and crow's-feet, is unintentionally the most sympathetic dame in the picture. When Fonda is off-screen, you ache for her inner steel and that caramel voice.

      Lohan, telegraphing through the weary peepers of a woman thrice her age, strains so hard to be a sexpot that we listen for the snapping sound. Huffman, usually terrific, embarrasses by overposturing under atrocious wigs. If you're expecting superb chemistry, forget it. It's as if each woman is so fiercely protective of her image, she's reluctant to bleed talent outside the lines lest doing so infuses the other upstart with more colour.

      That attitude runs contrary to the film's message: to feel compassion instead of recrimination. Movie audiences' views on that will determine their own responses to Georgia, Lilly, and Rachel's two-hour, melodramatic blame game. And when the possibility of sexual abuse suddenly arises to justify Rachel's outrageousness, some may find themselves hammering together their own sandwich board. Sometimes we need to feel more than empathy to actually like someone.