Georgia Rule

Jane Fonda stopped acting for 15 years. She returned from her hiatus to make “Monster-in-Law,” and has now followed that up with “Georgia Rule.” Evidently the plan for her golden years is to make bad movies exclusively.

She’s off to a great start with these stinkers, particularly “Georgia Rule,” which is sloppy and awkward and inappropriate, as if the most insensitive student in the class was put in charge of the report on a sensitive subject. Written by Mark Andrus (who co-wrote “As Good As It Gets” and penned the “Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood” adaptation) and directed by notoriously ham-fisted schlock-maker Garry Marshall, “Georgia Rule” is crass when it should be subtle and jokey when it should be serious.

It’s a waste of three good actresses, too. Fonda, Felicity Huffman, and Lindsay Lohan play three generations of effed-up women, all emotionally impaired in different ways and for different reasons. Georgia (Fonda) is a tough old bird in a small Idaho town who runs her life by the book and will wash your mouth out with soap if you take the Lord’s name in vain. (The F-word is OK, though.) She’ll declare how something is supposed to be and then add, “Georgia rule,” meaning it’s the rule Georgia made up and that she expects everyone to live by while in her home. An example, uttered while a neighbor kid is eating with his hands at her dinner table: “The fingers are for holding the fork, the fork is for feeding your mouth. Georgia rule.” Um, Georgia? I think that’s pretty much a rule everywhere. You’re not being very creative with that one.

Georgia’s daughter Lilly (Huffman), a twice-married alcoholic, is exasperated by the rowdy behavior of her own daughter, 17-year-old Rachel (Lohan). As punishment, she drops her off at Grandma Georgia’s house for the summer in the hopes that living for two months in a dull town under strict supervision will straighten her out. Lilly hasn’t seen her mother in 13 years. Rachel barely remembers Georgia. Clearly this is an excellent plan.

Rachel dresses skanky, acts skankier, and is the kind of arrogant, abrasive, know-it-all teenager for whom a lifetime of being smacked in the face seems like the only acceptable treatment. But she’s also a smart girl, an avid reader with a strong knowledge of classical music. So why is she so wanton? Why is she throwing herself at every boy in Hull, Idaho, and particularly Harlan (Garrett Hedlund), the Mormon soon-to-be missionary who already has a girlfriend and is supposed to be celibate before marriage anyway?

The movie answers that question by having Rachel mention, apropos of nothing, that her stepfather (Cary Elwes) sexually abused her from the time she was 12. She drops this bombshell on Simon (Dermot Mulroney), the veterinarian whose office Georgia is forcing her to work in. (“You gotta have a job” is another Georgia rule.) Simon’s reaction is to be nonplussed, since they weren’t really talking about anything remotely related to that when Rachel mentioned it, and then to tell Georgia, who calls Lilly, who is horrified to hear that her husband molested her daughter.

Or did he? There are two possibilities here. One is that Rachel is a sociopath who delights in drug use, drinking, sleeping around, and lying, and that these accusations are merely an extension of that. The other is that the accusations are true, in which case they’re probably the reason she’s a sociopath.

All of this makes it sound like “Georgia Rule” is a sober, intense drama, doesn’t it? But no! It is a merry comedy! The skies are sunny and the characters are glib, except for when they’re sobbing. Leave it to Garry Marshall, who unintentionally made a mockery of mental handicaps with his awful “The Other Sister,” to do the same for child abuse here. There’s an off-putting gag where Rachel and the neighbor boy, who is no more than 10 years old, get into a wrestling match on Georgia’s front lawn, whereupon Rachel is disgusted to realize the boy has an erection. Ho-ho, what a jolly scenario! In a movie about a girl who may have been repeatedly raped by her stepfather, we’re getting jokes about buxom 17-year-olds producing sexual arousal in prepubescent boys. CHARMING.

The film wants to examine the relationships Georgia, Lilly, and Rachel have with each other, but it can do so only in superficial, melodramatic terms. Georgia was emotionally cold, so that’s why Lilly drinks. Lilly married a cad, and that’s why Rachel is screwed up. Georgia eats dinner at exactly 6 p.m. every night and goes to bed at exactly 10, no exceptions; Rachel doesn’t look at the picture on the box when assembling a jigsaw puzzle, because she prefers not to know how it’s going to turn out. Those traits are supposed to be glimpses into the characters’ psyches — Georgia is rigid; Rachel is haphazard — but seriously, is that the best you could come up with? A fixation with schedules and a distaste for puzzle boxes?

When the rape thing isn’t at the forefront, the movie is listless and prone to wandering. Why the tangent about Harlan’s undoing at the hands (well, mouth) of Rachel? Whence comes his sudden and unreasonable grown-up love for her? Why must Simon have had a fling with Lilly when they were teenagers? Why must Lilly be a situational alcoholic (i.e., drunk only when the movie thinks it will be funny or useful)?

Somewhere in all this is a good character study of a damaged young woman. For all her tabloid-worthy offenses, Lohan is a genuinely solid actress when she puts her mind to it, and Fonda’s and Huffman’s skills are already well-documented. What they need is a deeper script and a director capable of handling issues as serious as these. Garry Marshall is a nice guy, and he’s made films that were harmless, likable fluff. He needs to learn not to tackle subject matter that’s beyond him. “Georgia Rule” is uncomfortably clueless in its approach.

D+ (1 hr., 53 min.; R, two F-words, some sexual dialogue, mature themes, general sluttiness.)