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The actresses rule in this soapy story of 3 generations

If there's a storm in his sights you can bet that Garry Marshall, a glass-half-full guy, will focus not on black clouds but on the sunbeams burning through them.

If there's a storm in his sights you can bet that Garry Marshall, a glass-half-full guy, will focus not on black clouds but on the sunbeams burning through them.

Marshall's Pretty Woman had a hooker made wholesome by love. Raising Helen offered a selfish type who in mothering her late sister's children learns selflessness. In Georgia Rule, it's a troubled teen who brings estranged mother and grandmother together to make their dysfunctional clan function for the first time in three generations.

The teen is Lindsay Lohan in full flower; Mom is Felicity Huffman, withering around the edges; and Grandma is Jane Fonda, hardiest of late bloomers. The actresses are super.

But the script, by Mark Andrus (As Good As It Gets), is pretty soapy stuff, veering unpredictably from obscenity to piety and back again. More specifically, it proceeds from the debauchery of San Francisco, where Lilly (Huffman) and Rachel (Lohan) live, love and drink hard, to the propriety of smalltown Idaho where teetotaling Georgia (Fonda) gardens, prays and does good.

Marshall is the master of contrived humanism, staging his dramas in sitcom settings. The humanism I'm drawn to; the contrivances make me cringe. I know that it's only a movie, but why would anyone drive from California to Idaho in ladies-who-lunch garb? Who wears false eyelashes to breakfast? And why play a below-the-belt crack about Mormon premarital chastity as a punch line?

The more pertinent questions are these: Why would Lilly, who resented Georgia's rules and religion so much that she hasn't seen her mother in 14 years, park Rachel at Grandma's house? Why does the hypersexualized Rachel, who dresses in barely-there minidresses, come on to every man she meets, from the 40ish veterinarian, Simon (Dermot Mulroney), to the 20ish Mormon, Harlan (Garrett Hedlund)? For her daughter and granddaughter, is Georgia a rock of strength or one of oppression?

From Julia Roberts to Julie Andrews, from Goldie Hawn to Kate Hudson, Marshall is both a terrific director of actresses and director of terrific actresses. He sees characters instead of stars, highlighting features and eliciting performances like no one else. Marshall notes the shadows around Rachel's sparkling eyes - a party girl's collateral damage, or the sign of more than a hangover? He sees the hairline fissures in Lilly's porcelain face, the cost of pickling her emotions. And he registers Georgia's outthrust upper lip, source of her determination.

I liked these characters even when I didn't believe in them. But I resisted Marshall's film when it sugarcoated subjects such as alcoholism and sexual abuse. The American public likes nothing better than a tragedy with a happy ending, William Dean Howells observed. But Marshall so cautiously downplays the tragic elements of his plot that the sweetness and light left a sour taste in my mouth.

Georgia Rule **1/2 (out of four stars)

Directed by Garry Marshall, screenplay by Mark Andrus, distributed by Universal Pictures.

Running time: 1 hour, 53 mins.

Georgia. . . Jane Fonda

Rachel. . . Lindsay Lohan

Lilly. . . Felicity Huffman

Simon. . . Dermot Mulroney

Harlan. . . Garrett Hedlund

Parent's guide: R (profanity, extreme sexual candor)

Playing at: area theaters