Director and veteran TV producer Garry Marshall is one of the nicest and most likeable guys in the business, if not the world. No matter the project, whether a Cinderella story about a would-be hooker (Pretty Woman) or the saga of two divorced men sharing an apartment without driving each other crazy (the sitcom "The Odd Couple"), Marshall's touch makes his screen characters into fallible, sympathetic humans. When he's doing a multigenerational family story involving claims of incestuous sex between a minor and her stepfather, that lighthearted touch is an odd choice that's joltingly unexpected in a Hollywood studio picture. Marshall's direction of a script by Mark Andrus--the Oscar-nominated co-writer of As Good as It Gets (1997) and the co-adapter of Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood (2002)--is affable and earnest, with charged performances by its three female leads and a daringly discomfiting depiction of a possibly abused girl's nymphomaniacal attempts at finding warmth and intimacy. If Georgia Rule had come from France, its brave mixture of screwball conventions, "Gilmore Girls" repartee and dead-serious emotional drama might have been less of a surprise and easier to take at first viewing.
Lindsay Lohan--who, despite her personal peccadilloes, is a talented and risk-taking actress--plays Rachel Wilcox, a seemingly spoiled 17-year-old who resembles Paris Hilton with some brains, if not breeding. She's out to make life hell for her borderline-recovering alcoholic mom, Lilly (Felicity Huffman), and her stepfather, Arnold (Cary Elwes). After crashing her car back home in San Francisco, Rachel's been banished to the Hull, Idaho, home of her devout but frontier-pragmatic grandmother, Georgia (a weathered but still fantastic-figured, 69-year-old Jane Fonda). Georgia, who stays fit watching the two young boys of a working mom (Laurie Metcalf, in a cameo), runs her life by two things: the clock, with meals and bedtime at the same time every day, and her set of rules about right and wrong. And occasionally whether an ace in gin rummy can be both high and low or just low.
Lilly is as estranged from her mother as Rachel is from hers, and rushes back to be with husband and friends. Rachel finds herself trapped with an actual job, filling in for the receptionist of the local vet, Dr. Simon Ward (Dermot Mulroney, doing that strong, sensitive, mopey thing he does), who, in an odd, illegal and unethical quirk that doesn't have anything to do with anything else in the movie, also patches up people, too. Simon lost his wife and child in a car accident about three years ago, and still can't face the thought of moving on romantically. Rachel also has eyes, and other body parts, for hunky young ranch hand Harlan (Garrett Hedlund), a Mormon who becomes repulsively eager to dump the fiancée he's known all his life. The complications don't really begin, however, until Rachel tells Simon that her stepfather's been molesting her since she was 12-and then wavers with her story as Georgia, Lilly and Arnold converge in Hull, trying to determine if the habitually lying and manipulative Rachel is speaking the truth.
Lohan's Rachel struts through the movie in micro-mini-dresses and skintight tops, flashing and seducing in the classic pathology of sex-abused children or maybe just Britney Spears. The three lead actresses are a miasma of emotion that fires into the heart of what we expect and what we need from family--and Fonda, as the granite matriarch, seems to channel the taciturn father she's often spoken about herself, who gave love in the form of disapproval. Georgia Rule is a difficult film, with particulars that don't work. But the cry-for-help desperation of its mother-daughter troika is mesmerizing.