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MOVIE REVIEW : ‘The Lemon Sisters’ Sinks Despite Its Able Cast

“The Lemon Sisters” (selected theaters) are three white ladies from Atlantic City who want to be the Supremes. Best buddies Eloise, Franki and Nola have gone from 1959 to 1982 in a time warp; at 31, they’re still doing ‘60s hits in small-time bars. As played by Diane Keaton, Carol Kane and Kathryn Grody, this unrelated threesome might not be offended if you called them “girls”; that’s what they want to be: a girl group. And their movie, a bit like “The Fabulous Baker Boys,” wants to be a ballad for show-biz wannabes.

In a rotten but cute world, you can always rely on your cute pals to get you through rotten times. They’ll be there with the party, the ambulance, the shopping bag full of money. So says “The Lemon Sisters,” and its one of those pearls of movie wisdom where the shiny thin shell barely covers the grain of sand inside. The people that made this movie--writers Jeremy Pikser and Mo Gaffney and director Joyce Chopra, working from Keaton’s idea--never seem tight with their material. They don’t empathize with these “little people.” Secretly, they condescend, make them into butts and foils.

“The Lemon Sisters” is set in Atlantic City, but it’s a kiddie-land resort as far removed from the boardwalk of blighted dreams and losers that we saw in Louis Malle’s 1980 “Atlantic City” as “Roseanne” is from “Raging Bull.” That’s not necessarily bad. “The Lemon Sisters” isn’t trying for anything profound or poetic. But the title is a giveaway. The sisters are called “Lemons” because they’re supposed to be awful--and they wear their awfulness with pride. One is a fruitcake; the other a couch potato; the third makes taffy.

Only the occasional monochrome flashbacks to the past--the three little girls huddling under piers or playing oceanside--have any amplitude or warmth. In the present, Chopra and the writers keep putting their foot on the nutty-cutie pedal and jamming it to the floor. The candy-colored boardwalk world, shimmery pink and yellow, has an oddball on every corner, hawking local color. Bag-ladies, hustlers, goombahs, hoods and flakes: They’re all here, jostling like rush-hour riders on the Goofball Limited. It says something about the movie’s attitude that the only time a “Lemon” succeeds is when she makes such a tangle-footed wreck of a lounge date that she’s hired as a comedian. Keaton’s character, Eloise, lives in a TV museum, full of such cherished boob-tube artifacts as Ralph Kramden’s jacket, Davy Crockett’s coonskin cap and an Enterprise chair from “Star Trek"--and the movie is a TV show too, a silly one. In one sequence Elliott Gould, as a lovable bozo of a saltwater taffy concessionaire married to Grody’s Nola, opens a new store with a huge, dumb-looking mechanical bunny outside and immediately--that very second!--he has his business destroyed when a nearby casino starts handing out free taffy. As Gould stares out toward the ocean with spaniel eyes, his mechanical rabbit keeps whomping away before his empty store, his blasted dreams. It’s the movie’s specialty: big-bunny irony.

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The lead actresses--Keaton, Kane and Grody--are friends in real life, and they obviously saw “Lemon Sisters” as a vehicle for that friendship. They’re all good; in fact the movie’s ensemble, which also includes Gould, Aidan Quinn, Ruben Blades and Estelle Parsons, is amazing. But “Lemon Sisters” doesn’t create a world: It packages a cast.

Keaton’s role is a showcase for her virtuoso whining, pouting, stomping and neurasthenic tics; Carol Kane sails off once again into frizzy-haired ditz-land, and Kathryn Grody seems to be the sensible frumpy type mediating between her out-there buddies. That isn’t a put-down. Kane is an under-used comic genius, and this is the kind of movie a frizzy-haired ditz can walk away with. That’s exactly what she does: in a tie with slick-haired mensch Ruben Blades.

There’s a built-in self-mockery that cuts apart this whole film. It pretends to be on the side of losers and dreamers, then keeps snickering at them. Midway through, Eloise, Franki and Nola start singing “Stop! In the Name of Love,” and Kane starts shaking and Keaton flashes her drop-you-dead grin and suddenly this cheek-pinching movie opens up. There’s something almost insanely pleasurable about that performance. But, abruptly, “The Lemon Sisters” cuts it short. It’s not about pleasure in performance; it’s not even really about friendship. It’s just a taffy-pull of self-congratulatory nostalgia, full of big-bunny irony.

‘THE LEMON SISTERS’

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A Miramax Films release. Producer Joe Kelly. Director Joyce Chopra. Script Jeremy Pikser. Camera Bobby Byrne. Production design Patrizia Von Brandenstein. Editors Joseph Weintraub, Michael R. Miller. Musical supervisor Paul Shaffer. Composer Dick Hyman. Costumes Susan Becker. With Diane Keaton, Carol Kane, Kathryn Grody, Elliott Gould, Ruben Blades, Aidan Quinn, Estelle Parsons, Richard Libertini, Sully Boyar.

Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes.

MPAA rating: PG (parental guidance suggested; some material may not be suitable for children).


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