Some modern tearjerkers come by their soggy passions naturally. Others rely on manipulation. The Joy Luck Club takes a rarer approach: It pounds you with pathos. Adapted from the Amy Tan bestseller and directed by the gifted and eccentric Wayne Wang (Chan Is Missing, Slam Dance), the movie is a sumptuous two-and-a-quarter-hour emotional epic built on one lachrymose climax after another. What little plot there is exists only to set up the next Big Cry.
As scripted by Tan with screenwriter Ronald Bass (Rain Man), The Joy Luck Club is extremely faithful to the novel, detailing the prickly relationships of four older Chinese women in San Francisco with their four Americanized daughters. Like the book, the film weaves in and out of decades, spans continents, and covers primal issues of abandonment, infanticide, mother love, and self-respect. It features eight different voices, all telling passionate tales of love and loss (and, needless to say, the perfidies of men).
The problem is, you can’t put a movie down to catch your breath. Tan, Bass, and Wang set up a short-story structure that quickly turns exhausting: After each of the older women flashes back to her youth, their daughters relate their own childhood memories of rebellion. The moral is almost always that Mama Knows Best, which fits The Joy Luck Club neatly into the beloved genre of Mother-Guilt films like Stella Dallas.
If only the movie didn’t keep telling us what to feel. Little is shown that isn’t at the same time described in voice-over; it’s the books-on-tape method of filmmaking. The dialogue, too, is often cringingly bald, full of self-help blather like ”Every time you hoped for something I couldn’t deliver, it hurt me, Mommy.”
There is one good reason to see this movie, though — or, rather, eight good reasons. Asian-American actresses such as Tamlyn Tomita, Rosalind Chao, Lisa Lu, and Lauren Tom rarely get a shot at full-bodied leading parts, and you can feel their relief in the generous, intelligent performances. Chao and Lu are especially fine as the dutiful wife of a businessman (Andrew McCarthy, in the least two-dimensional of the film’s male roles) and her mother, who sees her own mother’s fatal meekness in her daughter. Nearly two hours in, their segment is the only one that feels genuinely cinematic, and it gives the audience a momentary lift. Their scenes are too late to save the movie, though: There’s only so long you can keep a lump in your throat before you start to choke on it.