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by: Scott Renshaw

I never bought Dustin Hoffman as an autistic savant in RAIN MAN. Tom Hanks as slow-witted FORREST GUMP was all vocal mannerisms. Kevin Bacon in the soon-to-video DIGGING TO CHINA seemed to be mimicking Pee-Wee Herman. Movie stars trying to play mentally handicapped characters do so for any number of reasons -- the parts are juicy, the challenge is unique, and (if two of the three above examples are any indication) the chance for an Oscar is pretty good. Clearly plenty of viewers (and other critics) eat up such portrayals with a spoon. I generally spend two hours watching a movie star failing miserably at suspending my disbelief.

THE OTHER SISTER is a ghastly exercise for any number of reasons, but the primary reason is Juliette Lewis. Lewis plays Carla Tate, a 24-year-old woman with a slight mental handicap who has spent several years in a "special" boarding school. Returned at last to her wealthy San Francisco family, Carla finds that the adjustment is difficult on both sides. Her mother Elizabeth (Diane Keaton) alternately coddles Carla and pretends she is completely normal, while father Bradley (Tom Skerritt) quietly deals with his guilt at having sent her away at all. Into this picture steps Danny McMahon (Giovanni Ribisi), a young man with a similar mental handicap living on his own. Carla is inspired by his independence, and tries to break away from her family even as she and Danny become romantically attracted to each other.

The set-up for THE OTHER SISTER owes a major debt to the 1979 TV-movie "Like Normal People," in which Linda Purl and Shaun Cassidy played the developmentally challenged young people coping with familial opposition to their romance. Leave it to director Garry Marshall to make a TV-movie look like a paradigm of subtlety and sensitivity. THE OTHER SISTER is nearly as big a narrative mess as Marshall's all-but-unwatchable DEAR GOD, and as unabashedly candy-coated as his PRETTY WOMAN (the Disney-does-lesbians subplot involving Carla's older sister is nearly as convincing as Disney-does-hookers). The story leaps from episode to episode in search of a consistent tone, dragging its fine cast through the muck along the way. Diane Keaton fusses and fumes as a parody of a patrician dame trying to ignore the lack of "normalcy" in her family; Tom Skerritt fares better as the stolid, slightly passive dad. They're the worst kind of Hollywood character constructions, sit-com versions of Mary Tyler Moore and Donald Sutherland in ORDINARY PEOPLE.

And the wacky premise for that sit-com just isn't funny. I'm sure that everyone involved in THE OTHER SISTER felt they were making a heart-warming tale of triumph over adversity, which it very well might have been if there seemed to be a shred of authenticity to the situations. Lewis is a large part of the problem, and not necessarily because she does such a terrible job. It's somehow easier to buy Ribisi, though his performance certainly isn't light-years beyond Lewis's. Juliette Lewis, however, is always Juliette Lewis, from the first minute she's on screen until the last, an actress trying to convince me she's a mentally handicapped person. Watching Lewis screw up her face and twist her dialogue becomes like watching a white actor playing a character in blackface -- not just a case of miscasting, but wrong on a gut level.

That reaction isn't mitigated by a script which, frankly, draws nearly every one of its laughs from the goofy behavior of its handicapped characters. Viewers may kid themselves into thinking they're laughing good-naturedly at the struggles of these characters to be more like "normal people," but every gag is really at their expense. THE OTHER SISTER is a sideshow masquerading as a feel-good tale -- see the handicapped kids trying to figure out sex! see them get drunk and say inappropriate things! Indeed, THE OTHER SISTER stands as a shining example of all t


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