''Happy Tears,'' ''Rachel Getting Married,'' and other movies that get Lisa Schwarzbaum thinking about how to capture female-sibling magic onscreen

By Lisa Schwarzbaum
February 26, 2010 at 05:00 AM EST

Grown-up sisters separated by a continent reunite to care for their deteriorating father in the eccentric domestic-dysfunction indie Happy Tears. Laura, the older, poorer one, is a down-to-earth realist, a point of view reinforced by her sexless wardrobe and her long, can’t-be-bothered braids. Jayne, the younger, richer one, is a la-di-da fantasist, an attitude telegraphed in the expensive, high-heeled boots she models all the way from upscale California to her childhood home in Pittsburgh, where Dad is in the early stages of dementia.

The whole ungainly apples-and-oranges sibling study would be forgettable were it not for this: Demi Moore plays Laura, Parker Posey plays Jayne, and the two look so attractive together, with their glossy dark hair, elegant brows, and great cheekbones, that it’s impossible not to grin at the catchy casting. (Rip Torn, recently in the news for his alcoholic brouhaha, is a little too well cast as the hard-drinking, unraveling papa.) Watching a pair of stars who usually twinkle in different solar systems as they mime the enjoyment of sharing a joint (in the luxurious way that only filmmakers think real people do during family crises), I kept daydreaming about how much I’d like to see Moore and Posey play sisters again — but in something great. Like King Lear. Or Pride and Prejudice. Or Little Women, with Moore cast as Jo and Posey a natural to play luxury-loving Amy, pining for a fancy grown-up life.

Posey and Moore are all the worse to waste because the right combination of actresses as siblings has always been such a basic movie-watching pleasure. We expect films about sisterhood to emphasize a contrast in character — think of Anne Hathaway’s narcissistic drug addict versus Rosemarie DeWitt’s resentful, steady bride-to-be in Rachel Getting Married, or Toni Collette as a responsible workaholic versus Cameron Diaz as a ditzy party girl in the gauzy generational fairy tale In Her Shoes. After all, dramas about like-minded sisters who get on like gangbusters would be boring, generating no drama at all.

But the starkest contradictions in character mean little if the casting chemistry is off. What turns us on even more than square-versus-slutty siblings is an offbeat pairing of performers. Hathaway and DeWitt? Inspired! The pleasing physical rightness of Moore and Posey? Who knew! Granted, pleasure is in the eye of the beholder: The physical wrongness of Collette and Diaz as sibs, combined with the shrillness of their conflicts, made me weary of being in their shoes. Ditto the infernal cuteness of Amy Adams as an entrepreneurial single mom versus Emily Blunt as a flake in Sunshine Cleaning.

Still: For my ticket-buying money, something about the moviemaking gamble of assigning Actress A to the same familial boat as Actress B is alluring in a way that exceeds even the sight of the coolest dude actors playing bros. And when the bet pays off, we get the glory of Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet in Sense and Sensibility. When it goes bust, we at least get the interesting failure of Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman in Practical Magic.

There are, I know, connoisseurs who swear that the greatest, or at least wildest, family act of all time is that of Joan Crawford and Bette Davis in full macabre flower as twisted sisters in the outrageous 1962 horror comedy What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? A case could also be made that in the subcategory of a single star split in two, few twin acts have ever been as charming as that of young, full-of-promise Lindsay Lohan and Lindsay Lohan in Nancy Meyers’ sparkling 1998 remake of The Parent Trap. And for sheer charm of collaboration, it’s difficult to top Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin as singing sisters Yolanda and Rhonda Johnson in Robert Altman’s 2006 A Prairie Home Companion — a confection concocted in equal part of the stars’ real-life fame, their consummate performance skills, and the particular effectiveness of Altman’s signature preference for overlapping chatter among his players. In the case of the Johnson sisters, talk is the stream on which the old girls stay afloat through good times and bad. And Streep and Tomlin paddle like pros.

Still, as that peerless chronicler of feminine collaboration Jane Austen ought to have written: It is a truth universally acknowledged that the most perfect story of sibling love and discontent ever told is Woody Allen’s most generous comedy, 1986’s Hannah and Her Sisters. Here, dearly beloveds, is an understanding of sorority bonds at their subtlest, and portraits in sisterly truth at their deepest by Mia Farrow, Barbara Hershey, and Dianne Wiest. As Demi Moore and Parker Posey demonstrate, a similarity of bone structure is a start. But the best movies about sisterhood are much more than skin-deep.