Ambitious but confused, Conceiving Ada is a noble attempt at retracing the life of Ada Lovelace— the daughter of Lord Byron and, more importantly, the Victorian mathematician credited with writing the first computer program. In her first feature, Lynn Hershman Leeson deploys virtual sets (inserting actors into digitally tweaked photos) and an old chestnut of a framing device, connecting Ada (Tilda Swinton) with a present-day kindred soul, computer “genius” Emmy (Francesca Faridany). Beguiling in fits and starts, the result is mostly airless and awkward— avowedly highbrow, decidedly low-impact.
Balanced on a far-fetched premise that it doesn’t bother to flesh out (or treat as suitably metaphysical), Conceiving Ada features Emmy and Ada bonding across time and space. Information waves, DNA strands, and artificial life have something to do with it. (Oh, and so does Timothy Leary, in a game cameo filmed a week before his death.) This incoherence would be beside the point had Leeson approached her subject with some degree of playfulness, but the film’s straight-faced single-mindedness is stultifying.
With the help of a “live agent” (a metal bird that flies through computer screens), Emmy gains access to Ada, the latter’s life— as a compulsive gambler, highly sexed lover, and all-around fascinating creature— coming into focus on Emmy’s monitor. Both women have domineering mothers (played in both instances by a monstrous Karen Black) and experience man trouble (though Ada’s are more bothersome). Emmy is also pregnant, facilitating a genetic miracle that the title gives away. Pretentious and nonsensical as it can be, Conceiving Ada does occasionally exert a curious magnetism. The iconic Swinton is compelling almost by default, as is Lovelace, whose life clearly deserved a more viscerally imaginative interpreter.
Being a Garry Marshall movie, The Other Sister reflexively translates mental retardation as maniacal cuteness. Juliette Lewis, Young Hollywood’s patron saint of emotionally unstable behavior, plays a well-to-do young woman with a learning disability, who, after 10 years in a “special” boarding school, returns home to a control-freakish mom (Diane Keaton), docile, ex-alcoholic dad (Tom Skerritt), and two barely distinguishable sisters (though, in a feeble stab at a halfway modern subplot, one is, it turns out, a lesbian).
The Other Sister breezily charts Carla’s journey to independence, though, headstrong from the outset, she never seems like she has very far to go. She enrolls in college, meets a cookie-baking marching-band enthusiast (Giovanni Ribisi), falls in love, moves into her own apartment, and loses her virginity. Exhaustingly upbeat, The Other Sister exists in some embalmed universe where tough situations are glibly acknowledged, then deflected with smirky laughs.
Plunging headfirst into mush at every opportunity, Marshall brings out the worst in his actors. Lewis is as full-throttle as ever— it’s a method that has seldom served her well, and this slack-jawed, wide-eyed naïf comes off, disturbingly, as a cuddly version of her usual drawling, hair-trigger kook (given the circumstances, you can’t help wishing she would revert to type here, grab hold of a sharp object, and shed some blood). A fine actor increasingly forced to play below his IQ, Ribisi is no better. Their courtship is the film’s centerpiece, as well as its most patronizing element— the pair thumb through The New Joy of Sex, marking page numbers, and we’re supposed to giggle at the adorable awkwardness of it all.
“Stop laughing at me!” Carla shrieks after a climactic country-club meltdown (which is, of course, the movie’s idea of ultimate mortification). It’s a dismayingly hollow plea, not least because every other scene in the film has no qualms about encouraging precisely that reaction.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on February 23, 1999