Even in the age of kicked-up tabloid voyeurism, there is generally a firewall between the way a star behaves on screen and off. Take Lindsay Lohan, who is all perky, freckled sunshine in her movies, all wild-child hellion in the tabs. The firewall comes down, though, in Georgia Rule, a clunky family-therapy soaper, written by Mark Andrus and directed by Garry Marshall, that has the bad taste — or, maybe, the good commercial sense — to exploit Lohan’s public image as a girl who just can’t help it.
As Rachel, forced by her skittery, hard-drinking mom (Felicity Huffman) to spend the summer before college living with her scoldingly square grandmother (Jane Fonda) in small-town Idaho, Lohan parades her viper-on-a-diet body in billowy short skirts, with a spitfire temper to match. Rachel, a baby harlot and compulsive liar, uses sex as a weapon, and she’s not above cruelty: When she’s out with a handsome hippie boy who happens to be a Mormon, she practically ravishes him, but only because she gets off on the violation. (He spends the film’s next hour apologizing to God.) Lohan hits a true note of spiteful princess narcissism. Unfortunately, it’s the only note the film allows her to play.
Leave it to Garry Marshall to make a feel-good movie about alcoholism, nymphomania, and possible child sexual abuse. When Rachel announces that her stepfather (Cary Elwes) began sleeping with her at the age of 12, we have no idea if she’s telling the truth, and that uncertainty lurches the film back and forth: Did he or didn’t he? Is she a victim or just a brat who longs to be loved? As Rachel’s mom arrives and goes on a bender, acting out her hatred for her own mother (yes, it’s that kind of movie), Fonda’s Georgia takes it all in with her cracked and tart-tongued Yankee nobility. Her puritanism is the family’s original sin — though, in the end, it will save the day. Fonda runs with it, but deserves better than the role of a dowager who looks as if she’d like to police Golden Pond.