The timeless bond between mothers and daughters is the hook of the screen adaptation of Susan Minot's beloved novel of a wealthy family perpetually on the cusp of crisis.
Ann Lord (Claire Danes) has left the comfort of her Greenwich Village digs and traveled to snooty Newport, R.I., to play maid of honor at her best friend's wedding. Lila Wittenborn (Meryl Streep's eldest daughter, Mamie Gummer) is the bride-to-be, professing to be absorbed in lavish wedding preparations while secretly dreading a future attached to a man she doesn't love.
This should be drama enough to sustain a couple hours of secrets and lies, but director Lajos Koltai spins a grander web of stagy threads. Lila's irrepressible and alcoholic brother Buddy (Hugh Dancy) is the story's titular voice of reason, a be-soaked and bewildered charmer who secretly pines for Ann while cutting too close to the high-society truths of his stoic family.
The epicenter of this social whirlpool is unwitting villain Harris Arden (Patrick Wilson), the son of the ex-caretaker grown into a handsome doctor who appears to have his hooks in more than Lila's heart.
At this point the film threatens to overflow with emotional bounty, and that's just the flashbacks. The adult Ann (Vanessa Redgrave) lies on her deathbed, mulling over thrills and regrets to the consternation of daughters Nina (Toni Collette) and Connie (Miranda Richardson), who puzzle over the identity of mystery man "Harris" as mom waxes remorseful about the one that got away.
The rapid-fire flip-flop between decades is perplexing, never finding a smooth groove and offering distraction where clarification would be welcome. Cliches flow like Newport's best bubbly, sparkling with giddy effervescence and coloring the visuals with a rosy glow until ultimately falling flat.
The star power is staggering. Each and every player chews the scenery with theatrical gusto with the exception of Gummer, for whom expectations run mighty high but who simply can't radiate her mother's legendary charisma.
Streep as the elder Lila (natch) has a "moment" with Redgrave, a major meeting of A-list minds that's almost worth the price of admission.