Southern Discomfort

Something to talk about, the second movie written by Callie Khouri, probably won't ignite the op-ed passions that "Thelma and Louise" did, but you can't miss the Khouri touch--her sharp Southern tongue and her determination to tell tales from a fresh, female point of view. The women in this smart, highly entertaining comedy don't pack guns, but relations between the sexes are such that a well-placed knee in the groin can come in handy.

The knee belongs to Emma Rae King (Kyra Sedgwick), the groin is her brother-in-law Eddie's (Dennis Quaid) and the kick is an expression of solidarity with her sister Grace King Bichon (Julia Roberts), who's just discovered her husband's infidelity. Even before she uncovers the affair, Grace is frayed at the edges. Every time she drives off to an appointment, she forgets she's left her 10-year-old daughter behind.

Now, confronted with Eddie's philandering, something snaps in Grace, and she loses her tolerance for keeping up appearances. First she scandalizes her women's charity group. Then, moving back to the family manse, she troubles the waters with rude truths, setting off a chain reaction of pain and lunacy. Her rich, autocratic horse-breeding Daddy (Robert Duvall) fears that her marital woes will blow a real-estate deal with Eddie's father. Her mother (Gena Rowlands), oozing discreet Southern charm, urges her to forgive her husband and reconcile. Her dotty aunt recommends giving him a dose of poison--or "homeopathic aversion therapy," as she calls it.

The movie eventually boils down to one of the oldest romantic-comedy questions in the book: will husband and wife find a way to rekindle their lost love? This may disappoint some viewers expecting a more radical turn of events. But Khouri and director Lasse Hallstrom ("My Life as a Dog," "What's Eating Gilbert Grape") invigorate a conventional form with texture, warmth and a tangy feminist sensibility. Try to imagine a cross between Mary Chapin Carpenter and Philip ("The Philadelphia Story") Barry and you'll get an inkling of the movie's old bottle/new wine charm.

It may seem odd to entrust a Southern tale to the Swedish Hallstrom, but it was smart. Hallstrom hasn't acquired the bad Hollywood habit of hyping his material--he keeps the emotions honest, lets our sympathies ebb and flow between the characters in a scene. Grace is no saint, and Eddie more than a sinner. It's nice to see Roberts working with good material again, showing she can be both a star and a fine team player. From top to bottom, she's working with a thoroughbred ensemble. Sedgwick's blunt, ribald, Emma Rae is the crowd-pleasing part. Hers are the lines everyone will be quoting--raunchy enough to earn the movie an inappropriate R rating. What's refreshing, though, is that sooner or later every character, man or woman, gets his due. The humanity is spread around with a quirky, generous hand, reason enough to distinguish this quiet, low-tech comedy in a season of big-bang juvenilia.