The title of "Georgia Rule" refers to an ornery but big-hearted grandma's habit of laying down the law. In Georgia's house, aces are low cards, dinner is at 6 o'clock sharp and the Lord's name is not taken in vain. That she's played by the irrepressible Jane Fonda further sets the stage for a heart-tugging confection with Georgia at its center, taming wayward youth, as embodied by professional bad girl Lindsay Lohan.
But it's symptomatic of this unruly, sometimes bracing misfire that the title is off-base. A third of the way into the film, the plot takes a sharp, startling turn into darkness, but without giving up its desire to charm and yuk it up.
The result is a mishmash of slapstick, a comedy of manners (Idaho-style) and interfamilial combat that Eugene O'Neill might have scribbled down on a very bad day booze, leering daddies, slatternly moms. It's a mess, but an interesting one.
As the story begins, Rachel (Lohan) is dumped in Georgia's gorgeously situated Idaho town by her haggard San Franciscan mother, Lilly (Felicity Huffman of "Desperate Housewives"). Lilly and her second husband, Arnold (Cary Elwes), can't control the promiscuous, intermittently drug-addicted teen and at wit's end have decided to let the no-nonsense Georgia give it a try for the summer. Not surprisingly, Lilly and Georgia have been estranged for who knows how long another sadness we expect will be wiped away amid laughter and tears by film's end.
Idaho, it would seem, has never seen the likes of Rachel's slinky city attire, and in no time, she incites hormonal uproar in a hunky, aw-shucks Mormon boy, Harlan (Garrett Hedlund), whose purity she decides to put to the test, in the spirit of a summer science project for extra credit.
Like an inmate of MTV's "Real World," however, Rachel is seriously bummed to learn that she has to hold down a job that's a Georgia rule, too and winds up as factotum to the town vet, Simon (Dermot Mulroney), a doe-eyed widower (and former torch-carrier for Rachel's mom) still half-stunned by the loss of his wife and child in a car wreck a few years earlier. Impatient with his grief, which in her mind has gone on too long, Rachel exhorts him to move on, underlining her lesson with this revelation: Her stepfather Arnold was having sex with her for years, and she got over it.
And that, it turns out, is the center of "Georgia Rule," and the remainder of the film largely concerns everyone's response to this dreadful revelation, which Rachel immediately retracts, then reaffirms, then retracts again, and so on. Rachel and Arnold know the truth, but we, like Georgia, Lilly and Simon, are in the dark. Lilly descends on the town like one of the Furies, determined to get to the bottom of things, and is forced to confront her own alcoholism and troubled past with her mother to boot.
But what of Harlan? Like a dog with a meaty bone, the movie refuses to relinquish its interest in the pious young man, even though the story of his and Rachel's dalliance is miles removed from the appalling problems at the film's core.
While director Garry Marshall's attempt to juggle all these discordant parts makes for a tonally confused two hours, the movie's strength is its real curiosity about all kinds of things, even if that means that none of them ever comes into sharp focus. Harlan's Mormonism, for example, is presented with the same kind of affectionate irreverence familiar from countless Hollywood treatments of, say, Catholicism or Judaism an intriguing sign of the mainstreaming of that burgeoning religion (or should one say demographic?).
But with so many brands in the fire, screenwriter Mark Andrus doesn't give himself enough time to explore his characters. In order to cram everything in, every scene has to include some full-bore confrontation or end with a profound (and, more often than not, banal) declaration concerning the heart's mysteries.
It's a little exhausting, and more than a little synthetic, but by giving Fonda, Huffman, Mulroney and at times even Lohan, many opportunities to roar and puddle up to good effect, "Georgia Rule" delivers a modicum of satisfying sentiment amid the muddle. (R) 113 min. S