Georgia Rule

The winged marketing demon that patrols the air of popular culture trying to hustle audiences into seeing problematical product has stuck again, and the title this time is “Georgia Rule.” Served up in the ads as a slightly askew family comedy, “Rule” is far more psychologically dense than trivial laughs and third-act tears. In fact, the central plot of the film involves sexual abuse. Now there’s something a Dido song can’t wash away.

Rachel (Lindsay Lohan) is a sexually reckless teen with a chip on her shoulder a mile high. Sent to idyllic Idaho to live with her grandmother Georgia (Jane Fonda) for the summer, Rachel bristles at the rules and expectations laid out for her. Rebelling at first, Rachel soon learns to respect Georgia, and reveals a dark secret from her past to test her loyalty. This brings her alcoholic mother Lilly (Felicity Huffman) to town in search of answers she’s not prepared to process.

It’s important to highlight the darker aspects of “Georgia Rule.” Without that prior knowledge, the picture could be dismissed as a curdled attempt at transparent multifaceted storytelling; a wildly uneven tale of perpetual deceit and generational pain. Truthfully, “Rule” is a patchy look at dented interaction and it pains me to see Universal try and rope people in with promises of a comedy with sunshine around every corner. This film just isn’t that polite.

Truthfully, “Rule” is a mixed bag of a drama, pushing tremendously toward atom bomb emotional catharsis but weighed down by the sticky intricacies of the plot and the overall smothering mood of neglect. It doesn’t help matters that Garry Marshall was hired to direct the project.

Certainly Marshall has found some mammoth success before, but “Rule” is a careful brew of themes and textures, requiring an attentive director who doesn’t always have an eye on a gag to button a scene. In recent years, the filmmaker has been reduced to an industry pushover, making weightless entertainment for family audiences. “Rule” is an unexpectedly raw R-rated feature, with heavy emphasis on casual sex acts and truckloads of hurt, and while I applaud Marshall for thinking outside of the box for once, he’s still not able to process everything the script pitches toward him. This is where the A-list cast comes in handy.

As the family tree in desperate need of psychological pruning, Fonda, Huffman, and Lohan are flawless in their execution of familial breakdown. Each actress is handed a big squishy ball of character behavior to work with, but they ingest the material wisely, extremely careful and attentive over what they offer the camera. Fonda is the mannered matriarch; a grandmother who hasn’t been offered the chance to try out her role of age-defined power and is just getting used to the brakes. Huffman is a wifely mess; a woman beholden only to her bad habits and crestfallen to see that isn’t enough to keep her daughter’s attention. Lohan, in a career-best acting job, is sexual switchblade only now coming to terms with her toxicity. It’s a trifecta of dramatic depth that keeps “Rule” on target and emotionally real. The film would be nothing without them.

“Rule” embraces the wish list of small town conventions – this is a Garry Marshall picture after all. It wouldn’t be the same if there wasn’t a joke about an incontinent old lady or Hector Elizondo in a cameo doing a funny voice for no reason. Yet, I was alarmed to see the director give his cast the proper breathing room to communicate the mistakes the characters make. There’s a real effort to try and build an emotional arc in “Rule,’ but it always seems undone by cuteness or left-field discomfort, embodied best in the rickety molestation subplot and a last-minute graceless performance from Cary Elwes. Every time “Rule” finds its footing, Marshall gets panicked and the film quickly resorts to the flavorless mush it feels most comfortable with. Maybe marketing the film as an endless day at the beach wasn’t such a bad idea after all.

Rating: C