“Steel Magnolias,” the 1989 film starring Sally Field, Shirley MacLaine and a young Julia Roberts, gained a well-earned reputation as a quintessential “chick flick” and one of the soggiest tear-jerkers ever. But it was also darn funny.
Viewers will be reminded of that fact during the brand-new, highly faithful Lifetime reboot that features an all-black cast, including Queen Latifah, Alfre Woodard, Phylicia Rashad and Jill Scott. Yes, they’ll have you reaching for the tissues when tragedy strikes, but they’ll also have you giggling like crazy with every tart zinger they hurl.
Of course, you first must be willing to embrace the dubious notion of remaking an iconic film about a tight-knit group of Southern women. (The original cast also included Dolly Parton, Daryl Hannah and Olympia Dukakis.) Why mess with such a beloved classic? Well, because Hollywood just can’t help itself. At least in this case, producer Craig Zadan and Neil Meron (“Chicago,” “Hairspray”) have delivered a first-rate, lovingly crafted update.
So it doesn’t really take any time at all to find yourself immersed again in a small Louisiana town, where ladies meet up at a beauty shop owned by a genial woman named Truvy (Scott) to dish about the mysteries of life and death, families and husbands and hair and nails.
Much of the whip-crack dialogue is faithful to the original, right down to the snide remarks uttered by the delightfully cranky Ouiser (Woodard). “Don’t try to get on my good side,” she sneers. “I no longer have one.” But there are tweaks here and there. In a conversation about wedding gifts, for example, a reference to a VCR is freshened with a PlayStation Vita.
The film’s main dramatic interest lies in the combustible relationship between M’Lynn (Latifah), a fretful, controlling mother, and Shelby (Condola Rashad), her strong-willed daughter. They bump heads over Shelby’s impending wedding and just about everything else, but it’s obvious their bond is unbreakable.
Like the original, this is not what you’d consider a “guy’s movie.” The male characters are nearly non-entities. Nothing blows up. No one gets naked. There’s not a single car chase. Even the appearance of basketball great Julius Erving (Dr. J!) in the small role of local minister can’t offset all the estrogen.
No, this is a celebration of girl power, pure and simple. The women are the steel magnolias of the title — Southern belles who might appear to be delicate flowers on the outside but are strong enough at their core to conquer any challenge. Even a terrifying health crisis involving poor Shelby.
The primary pleasure of the move is watching the lively interactions of its cohesive cast. Directed with observational shrewdness by Kenny Leon, the acting is so effortless, and the camaraderie so natural, that these women make you forget those folk who previously inhabited their characters.
And there isn’t a clunker among the bunch. One might think that fresh-faced Condola Rashad — Phylicia’s daughter — would get lost among the old pros. But she holds her own and works wonders with the emotional churnings of a woman who is occasionally susceptible to youthful yearning, but also knows the pragmatic limits of romanticism.
Still, the movie belongs to Latifah, who deftly conveys such a wide range of emotional textures that she reaches through the screen right into your heart and gut.
At one point in the film, a line is uttered about the desire to rather have “30 minutes of something wonderful than a lifetime of nothing special.” Fortunately, the new “Steel Magnolias” turns out to be a full 90 minutes of wonderful.
9 p.m. EDT Sunday
Chuck Barney: email@example.com
©2012 Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.)
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