The drama Georgia Rule just plain doesn't work. At times, it feels like a Lifetime movie-of-the-week, but with a cast that far outclasses the genre. At times, you can see hints of an indie film-wanna-be style, but the characters and setting are too superficial, and the plot twists are too predictable and pat. Even the performances from an experienced cast don't add much life to the film -- in fact, if the performances had been worse, at least the film could have worked as a gloriously tacky melodrama. Instead, the film is a tedious yawn with only a few bright spots.

Wild-child Rachel (Lindsay Lohan) is sent to live with her grandmother Georgia (Jane Fonda) for a few months before she heads off to Vassar, since her mother Lilly (Felicity Huffman) and stepdad Arnold (a sadly unrecognizable Cary Elwes) don't know what else to do with her. Georgia's iron-clad household rules (thus the title) cannot entirely thwart Rachel as she inflicts her brand of chaos on the small Idaho town, including the hot-but-devout-Mormon teen Harlan (Garrett Hedlund) and the older vet for which she ends up working, her mom's ex-boyfriend Simon (Dermot Mulroney). When Rachel confides something personal and devastating to Simon, all hell breaks loose and Lilly is forced to return to her estranged mother's house, where all three women have to learn to deal with one another. Or not.
The three lead actresses are all as excellent as they can be, but they're severely limited by poorly written characters based heavily on stereotypes, whose actions don't even make sense within the stereotypes. And Lohan is miscast -- the role should be played by someone who can exude an almost palpable sexuality, and she's just too cute and freckled and radiates as much sex appeal as Pippi Longstocking. Perhaps that was the filmmakers' intent -- that the character's experiences caused her to behave like a sexpot when she's still mostly a little girl -- but it doesn't work, because it doesn't explain the male characters' reactions to her. (I kept thinking of Christina Ricci in Black Snake Moan, which might be too over-the-top for this film, but would be more of a step in the right direction.) Garrett Hedlund, however, did manage to captivate the audience as the sexy Harlan in his dusty pickup truck. Fonda does her best with a role that has little nuance, and Felicity Huffman -- well, every time I saw her driving cross-country in a car in this movie, all I could think about was her wonderful Oscar-nominated role in Transamerica, and I started to wish I was watching that movie again instead. Or Sports Night. Or anything where her character didn't descend into a drinky stereotype.

The setting of the film is also one big stereotype that doesn't seem genuine -- the Very Wholesome Small Town, in which Lohan's rebellious Rachel sticks out in contrast. What, small towns don't have their own local rebels? There's a picnic with barbecue and homemade pie, the women are all dressed like Stepford wives, and judging by the traffic at the vet's office, every single resident owns a pet of some sort. The stores are all quaint and local (Wal-Mart apparently hasn't invaded yet). It looks like a movie set, not a real town with real people -- it's just a setting for the three leads to play against. Again, there's no depth, and nothing that strikes a chord of recognition with the audience.

The dialogue consists of lines like "For a smart girl, you're good at being stupid," and other eye-rolling platitudes. Lohan is supposed to be cracking wise in her first scenes, but the writing falls flat. Too much time is spent on trying to generate suspense in the "what's the real story about Rachel's confession?" aspect of the plot in the second half of the film. It makes sense that some of the characters might not know the truth, but by not revealing the truth to the audience, we end up confused and annoyed. We don't know why we should care about these characters, and thus lose interest after the third or fourth plot reversal. I'm told that the movie is made to appeal to teenage girls and young women, but most of the young women in the audience at the screening I attended grew restless and divided their attention between the big screen and the smaller PDA screens in their hands.

Ultimately, Georgia Rule isn't as realistic as it wants to be, and it's difficult to become absorbed in a story about characters with little personality and no complexity. Like the equally unconvincing female-centric In the Land of Women, Georgia Rule was written and directed by men -- in this case, Garry Marshall directed from a script by Mark Andrus. I'd rather see women telling their own stories on film, which might add a little sincerity and believability to the often-condescending "women's film" genre. On the other hand, I wasn't bowled over by Catch and Release, written and directed by Susannah Grant, so perhaps I'm not a "chick flick" type of chick.