Ken Kwapis' The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants starts with a perfectly ridiculous premise. Four high school juniors are shopping for their summer vacation. Though different in just about every conceivable way, the four young women are fast friends (from what I know of teen cliquishness, a ridiculous premise all on its own). Bridget (Blake Lively) is tall, blond, athletic and aloof. Carmen (America Ferrera) is short, brown-skinned, plump and chatty. Lena (Alexis Bledel) is slender, pale, frizzy-haired and shy. Tibby (Amber Tamblyn), who is of average height and build, sports a nose ring, blue streaks in her hair and an incessant scowl. Despite different waist and hip sizes, the girls find a pair of jeans that miraculously fits them all. They declare the denim to be "magic pants" and agree to share wearing them throughout the summer, an especially neat trick (and product placement for FedEx) since none of them are summering in the same town. And via this baldly contrived, incredibly clumsy and ultimately unnecessary premise begins a perfectly average motion picture that should be reserved at best, teenaged girls excepted of course, for cable or video rental.
Adapted for the screen by Delia Ephron and Elizabeth Chandler from the novel by Ann Brashares, Traveling Pants is basically an anthology film. Our four heroines have togetherness on their shopping trip, in saying their goodbyes and in a hugful reunion at summer's end, but otherwise each sets off on a separate adventure in a different place. In every case, we get a little back story on why this particular summer's experience will be formative in shaping the woman each girl will ultimately become, a worthy strategy, to be sure, if one executed here with less staying power than the demanding viewer will hope for.
Bridget, who is an all-state soccer forward, heads off to Baja California for soccer camp. (Aside from the filmmakers' slick desire to shoot there, why Baja, which ain't exactly the most climatically advantageous spot for outside summer exercise?) At camp, Bridget demonstrates herself to be a showboat whose specialty is a hoochee-coochee dance every time she scores a goal. Because of the picture's set-up, we understand that we're supposed to root for her, but she seems just the kind of spoiled egomaniac who has increasingly soured spectator sports for many of us. When Bridget's not pouting because her summer coach has asked her to learn to play defense, she spends her time trying to seduce another coach named Eric (Mike Vogel), who shows more restraint than Odysseus passing the island of the Sirens. In the end, coitus is not interrupted, but in predictable movie-of-the-week morality, nobody ends up satisfied.
Lena, meanwhile, heads off to the Greek isle of Santorini. (Santorini is one of the most wonderful spots on earth, so why wouldn't the filmmakers want to shoot there?) Lena's parents are Greek, we're told (we don't meet them), so she's sent to the Aegean to spend a summer with her grandparents. And under that Hellenic sun we get Romeos and Julietonopolis. Yep, no more than has Lena arrived in Santorini than does she go gaga for Kostos (Michael Rady) the Athens University student grandson of her grandfather's bitterest enemy. Whether there's possibility or poison in their international relationship I shall reserve for the video. But I should alert you to the striking resemblance young Mr. Rady bears to Anthony Quinn, who distinguished himself, among other roles, as Zorba, the Greek. So: extra credit for canny casting.
Carmen gets to go nowhere so neat as Greece or Baja. She has to go visit her father Al (Bradley Whitford), who hasn't even had the decency to tell her that he's cohabiting with Lydia (Nancy Travis) and her two Nordic children. Moreover, he's about to marry. WASPy Al never seems plausible as Hispanic Carmen's dad, but he does make a credible jerk. In the end, I want to applaud the flick's attempt to redeem him, but I wasn't convinced by a second of it.
And last, Tibby gets to stay home and work at "Wallman's." (The picture's shooting budget evidently couldn't afford the Paris "Wallman's".) Ms. Tamblyn exhibits herself as the most accomplished of the film's feature players and creates the character with the most texture. Sadly, however, the script saddles Tibby's quarter of the story with a palpably calculated weepathon about her unlikely relationship with a 12-year-old girl dying of leukemia. Jenna Boyd, who plays the spunky young victim Bailey, is appealing enough that you almost forgive the picture's coarse determination to manipulate. But not quite. And that verdict tends to stand for the movie in its entirety.
In sum, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants is sincere enough that even the jaded critic is tempted to give it a pass. There's lots worse out there. Wholesomeness mixed with earnest sappiness is not a criminal offense. But that hardly means the medium can't do a whole lot better.
- Body types: SassyCarmen (America Ferrera) and average Tibby (Amber Tamblyn) marvel at their portentous purchase in Ken Kwapis' The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants .