I can’t even remember when, where or how I first found out about Riding the Bus with My Sister. All I know is that I will never, ever forget it. It’s sort of like my JFK moment, if you replace President is publicly shot in the head with: Rosie O’Donnell does funny walk in denim shorts.
I vaguely recall first seeing clips of the film on YouTube, clips that were quickly shared, in the same way you’d share a video of a daft American school kid falling face-first off a stage or a bemused newsreader having a bird shit in his mouth live on-air. The Proper Writer in me wants to expand either of these images to encapsulate some sort of fitting metaphor for this film, but to do so would be to undermine the madness onscreen throughout. This is a film you will see and never forget. You will question how such films get made, and you will repeatedly question your own sanity, as well as that of Andie McDowell, the aforementioned Ms. O’Donnell, and just about everyone else involved, particularly the director, Anjelica Huston. Yes, that’s THE Anjelica Huston, star of the Addams Family and The Royal Tenenbaums. Anjelica Huston, the daughter of legendary director Jon Huston. Come back and re-read that sentence after seeing the film.
Riding The Bus With My Sister is essentially a made-for-TV ripoff of Rain-Man. Jerry Bruckheimer’s 1988 classic cast Tom Cruise as a high-flyer forced to look after his estranged, autistic savant brother (Dustin Hoffman, in an unforgettable performance) after their father passes away. Huston’s effort stars Andie McDowell as Rachel Simon, a high-flyer forced to look after her estranged, nonspecifically-handicapped sister Beth (Rosie O’Donnell, also in an unforgettable performance), after their father passes away. So far, so familiar. Just like Rain-Man, the film follows the gradual softening of the ˜normal’ sibling’s attitude, as she learns to accept and appreciate the nuances of her ˜gifted’ family member. And that’s about as much as the plot we really need to cover. Because the beauty of this film, my friends, lies in the execution.
You know immediately that you’re onto a classic stinker when the opening credits are all in badly-centered Comic Sans font, musically accompanied by the sort of whimsical, sentimental plinky-plonky piano that screams CHARMING IDIOSYNCRASY!. Then the credits remind you that, yes, this really was directed by Jon Huston’s daughter, and you start to wonder if Martin Sheen was perhaps a bit harsh in disowning Charlie just for banging a few lines of coke off a hooker’s sweaty crevasse.
The film throws itself into setting up the usual tropes associated with this kind of Hallmark story, first establishing Andie McDowell as the cold, heartless businesswoman Rachel. Requiring a clear emotional disconnect, it’s a role in which McDowell shines, although not on purpose. It’s simply a side-effect of the utter charisma-vacuum she creates every time she’s on screen. Honestly, this makes her performance in Four Weddings and A Funeral look like Olivier doing Henry V. So many times I had to stop and rewind the film, just to check I’d really heard the wonky intonation that McDowell manages to place on every other line. It’s just incredible. At times I started wondering if everyone involved in the film was part of some bizarre prank against me, in which I lose the ability to understand language in any recognisable human manner. It really is a massive achievement for an actor to be so terrible that they can stand a chance of distracting the viewer from the total mindfuck that is Rosie O’Donnell playing someone with a mental disability. On which note, we move onto the core argument for cult status to be attached to Riding The Bus With My Sister.
Rosie O’Donnell plays Beth Simon, the developmentally-disabled sister of McDowell’s Rachel. Beth is obsessed with the city buses, and rides them several times a day. She chats to the passengers, forges friendships with the drivers, and generally furrows a line of kookiness that’s clearly intended to completely endear her to the viewer. Upon her first appearance on screen, it becomes horribly apparent that O’Donnell has missed the target by miles. Every moment she spends in the frame is a utter car crash, truly the type of performance you’ll watch through your fingers. Countless other actors have played mentally-handicapped character before, and have succeeded in bringing a dignity and respectful approach to the role. From Malkovich to DiCaprio, time has shown us that there are always actors who will come along and knock a role like this out of the park. But Rosie O’Donnell does not knock it out of the park. Rosie tries to knock it out of the park, but misses, accidentally letting go of the bat, which then hurtles into the stands and hits an orphan in the face.
O’Donnell’s performance is all comedic gurning, overly-affected gesturing and unintentionally silly voices. The occasional attempts at genuine pathos fall flat, partly because you can’t stop thinking, Holy Shit That’s Rosie O’Donnell, and partly because her entire performance is constantly one or two notches too high. It feels like an offensive impersonation of somebody with Beth’s condition, rather than a believable or moving representation. What comes to mind is the excellent speech in Tropic Thunder, in which Robert Downey Jr’s insane method actor warns of the peril of going full retard. As much as using the ˜R’ word is abhorrent and discriminatory in the context of this film, it’s use by Downey Jr hints upon the fear of turning a handicapped character into a bizarre, laughable ˜other’. And that is what happens here, unfortunately. It’s a total shame to watch, because, by god, Rosie is trying, and she’s clearly attempting to warm the viewer towards Beth.
The script doesn’t do her any favours, of course. A constant barrage of non-sequiturs seem to be the go-to tactic, designed to emphasise Beth’s unique perspective yet off-kilter to the point of parody. The effect being that you’ll laugh and then instantly feel like a complete bastard. Some lines are just unexpectedly hilarious, though: at one point Beth wishes somebody Happy Birthday, is informed it isn’t that persons birthday at all, and dismissively replies Oh, that’s okay without leaving a beat. Trust me: I didn’t mean to, but I burst out laughing at that. Several points in the film call for Beth’s fellow bus passengers to express visible discomfort at her ramblings: you end up wondering if the awkwardness you see is actually the genuine, baffled reactions of the cast.
Huston’s direction is consistently woeful, failing to grasp the most basic elements of visual storytelling. The best example of this is in the constant parade of flashbacks experienced by Rachel (honestly, they are so numerous you eventually expect her to reminisce about doing a tour of ˜Nam). Whenever Rachel enters a flashback to dwell upon her difficult upbringing, Huston repeatedly fails to use any kind of visual signifiers to flag this. As a result, the viewer is left to figure out that the fat kid in shorts eating all the finger-paint is meant to be a young Beth.
I should clarify that I’m certainly not looking to mock or belittle the source material (the film is based on the real-life memoirs of Rachel Simon), but this simply is a baffling, frequently-hysterical, abomination of a film. My desire to defend the people involved – based on the sensitive issues the film does try to explore – is constantly at odds with the downright insane creative choices made throughout. Somewhere in the depths of the screenplay is a genuinely moving story about the difficulty of living with disability, and how important it is for somebody to be accepted for who they are. But, as noble a cause as it may have been, the director, scriptwriter and lead actors all fail to recognise any sense of responsibility or restraint whatsoever when telling the story. The effect is a laughable film that manages to turn its vulnerable protagonist into a vehicle for demonstrating the continued ridiculousness of Rosie O’Donnell. Riding The Bus With My Sister may well have its heart in the right place. It’s just that its head is somewhere else altogether.