Athematic sequel to his 2002 hospital hostage drama, John Q, Nick Cassavetes’s My Sister’s Keeper centers on a different sort of hostage situation, one in which an 11-year-old girl is incessantly pressured by her parents to donate blood, bone marrow, and even a kidney to postpone the inevitable death of her saintly, leukemic older sister, for whom she’s a rare blood match. Correctly intuiting that she’s being illegally coerced, the violated and apparently unloved Anna (Abigail Breslin) opens the story by slapping some money down on the desk of ambulance chaser Campbell Alexander (a dapper Alec Baldwin), hiring him to emancipate her from the terrible decision-making of her emotionally traumatized mother, Sara (Cameron Diaz), whose refusal to accept the terminal condition of the rapidly expiring Kate (Sofia Vassilieva) extends even to barring Make a Wish representatives from entering Kate’s hospital room.
No villain, Diaz’s Sara is just a weepy, over-determined mess who ultimately steals some of the film’s sympathy from Anna, proving that Diaz is nothing if not inherently likable. However, Cassavetes also cheats a bit in Sara’s favor, carefully constricting the film’s focus so that the emotional center remains fixed on Kate’s hardship, not Anna’s, lest the viewer linger on thoughts of child abuse. The frightening escalation of Kate’s cancer is glimpsed in vivid flashbacks that show her vomiting blood, agonizing over hair loss from chemotherapy, and finding love with a dying boy in the cancer ward, while Anna’s own hospitalizations, for the painful marrow extractions and blood transfusions that keep Kate alive, are almost exclusively talked about, rather than shown. One harrowing exception is when she’s briefly seen being forcibly held to a hospital bed, a damning visual that’s hysterically overlaid with cheery music so as to dampen its persuasive power. It’s as if Anna has to convince even the filmmakers of her plight.
Apart from the tonal inconsistencies resulting from Cassavetes’s tinkering with the audience identification focus, My Sister’s Keeper also suffers from sheer sloppiness of script that results in scenes of comedic frivolity coming off as screechingly forced, and dramatic episodes so conceptually off-kilter that they succeed as unintentional comedy. A prime example of the latter would be a flashback that reveals Anna’s very birth to have been the result of an “off-the-record” suggestion of Kate’s quack oncologist, who looks like SCTV-era Eugene Levy and who actually convinces Sara and bored-looking husband Brian (Jason Patric) to have another child for the spare parts, which they do. Back in the present day, as they sit on either side of Anna at a dinner table, trying to cajole her into more “donations,” their persistence borders on ghoulishness.
A clichéd circus of a movie trial predictably ensues, with inexplicably fidgety judge Joan Cusack presiding over what’s essentially a group hissy fit so legally irrelevant it could have just as well been held at the family breakfast table. By that point, the viewer is almost hoping that, in light of everything that’s come before, the judge will place Anna in the custody of warm, compassionate Campbell Alexander, who gets a chance to shine in one unexpected moment. Incensed by the barking of his constant canine companion, the judge forces both lawyer and dog to leave the courtroom. Once outside, Alexander promptly topples to the ground and lapses into an epileptic seizure, inadvertently revealing his emotional reasons for initially taking on Anna’s case. Ever the great showman, Baldwin executes his frightening fit with aplomb, and it’s almost worth the ticket price.