e-mail us

At the Movies

Old-fashioned farce a fun romp; Streep shines in tear-jerker


One True Thing (Universal) is a mainstream vehicle on an emotionally surefire subject: the cancer-ridden last months of a brave mother. Meryl Streep inhabits the role with such luminous force that she conveys a reserve of unsuspected strength even as she grows more and more physically helpless.

Based on Anna Quindlen’s best-selling novel, the movie is worth seeing just to catch Streep as Kate Gulden, but it never really transcends its tear-jerker formula. Director Carl Franklin has permitted too much gushy music on the soundtrack, and Karen Croner’s screenplay is awkward and often confusing. Difficulties are compounded by the fact that neither Kate’s daughter, Ellen (Renee Zellweger), nor her English professor husband, George (William Hurt), are dramatically convincing or sympathetic.

It’s easy to understand Ellen’s frustration when she is asked to put her job at New York magazine on hold in order to come home and take care of her mother. Her father practices emotional blackmail: “You got a Harvard education,” he tells Ellen, “but where is your heart?” The trouble is that Renee Zellweger’s all-purpose response is an unattractive sulk.

To be fair, hers is the most difficult, most thankless role in the film. You’re not intended to like Ellen at the outset, but the situation calls for an actress with a repertoire of emotional responses that would suggest the growth going on inside her.

The point is crucial since the narrative’s forward movement takes place within Ellen: Initially she is Daddy’s girl, wanting his approval for her own writing efforts and half embarrassed when Kate dresses up as Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz” for a costume birthday party for her husband. Unfortunately, Ellen’s journalistic ambitions are never made credible, and the scenes showing George’s concern for his literary reputation are too obvious. We are told he has won a National Book Award for a collection of essays, but he seems pretentious and ambitious rather than genuinely intellectual.

The movie is annoyingly vague about George’s affairs with students. By the time we’re convinced of his infidelity, we’ve judged him even more harshly for being apologetic about his wife’s naiveté when, without warning, he brings a famous writer home for Thanksgiving dinner. Kate makes them hold hands as she says a childhood grace before the meal with genuine simplicity.

Streep is so transparently good, we forgive her for being a super-mom in a fatuous upper middle-class suburb. She convinces us that she is still in love with her husband as she dances with him to Bette Midler songs; she even triumphs -- with her women’s group, the Minnies -- in organizing and decorating the town’s communal holiday celebrations.

Forced to observe her mother on a day-to-day basis, Ellen begins to appreciate the role Kate plays in the community and the practical intelligence hidden behind the housewifely mask.

“One True Thing” would have been more powerful, however, if it had been anchored in an ethnic and religious reality; when Kate offers that simple grace, we’re not sure whether it’s another example of ingenuousness or a reminder of hidden conviction.

Indications of rootedness would also have given greater impact to Kate’s fierce speech in response to Ellen’s growing condemnation of her father. “You make concessions when you’re married a long time,” she says, defending the compromises of her life. “It’s so much easier to be happy.” The movie deliberately softens our view of George later on, however; Ellen finds him in a bar, frustrated by his inability to complete his novel, tearfully acknowledging his own mediocrity.

The logic of “One True Thing” seems to represent a cultural corrective to an earlier stage of feminism, a rediscovery of selfless domesticity. Women will perhaps remember how their own mothers managed to keep everything running and will surely recognize Kate’s power, but it remains to be seen whether such an example will be contagious.

Part of the difficulty is that the community in which Kate is acting is totally unreal; everyone is so nice to each other I’d take the first bus out of town. Author Quindlen is herself responsible for part of the problem because of the weakness of her male characters: Ellen’s boyfriend and her brother are empty ciphers, and George is all surface charm.

If you’re going to The Impostors (Fox Searchlight Pictures), an old-fashioned farce set in an imaginary 1930s, be sure not to be late. As the credits begin to unwind, Arthur (Stanley Tucci) and Maurice (Oliver Platt) are at adjoining tables at a Central Park cafe. Minor misunderstandings quickly escalate in the best Laurel and Hardy tradition and nearby patrons are understandably terrified when things get to the point where knives are drawn. Since Maurice and Arthur are unemployed actors who like to rehearse their routines in public, no physical harm results, but Arthur is outraged. Maurice, carried away by the drama , staggers to a hammy collapse, forgetting that it was his partner’s turn to play the death scene.

The two men are reconciled the next morning and continue their zany practice scenes in their small room. Hopes of landing acting jobs, however, seem bleak until they encounter Woody Allen in a cameo appearance as casting director for his own play. Unfortunately, Allen gets a call from his wife, who says she’s leaving him and withdrawing her money from the show.

Things only get worse after they win free tickets to a performance of “Hamlet” played by the self-inflated and heavy-drinking English actor, Jeremy Burton (Alfred Molina). Maurice is delivering a bravura denunciation of Burton at Sardi’s after the show when the latter comes in, prompting a fight that largely destroys the premises and forces Arthur and Maurice to run from the police. With the mad logic of a Marx brothers movie, they hide in a packing crate next to a dock and quickly fall asleep. By the time they wake up, of course, they have been hoisted on board a luxury liner headed for France.

The rest of “The Impostors” takes place at sea, in more ways than one. Maurice and Arthur try to pass themselves off as stewards, but Burton, a last-minute passenger, recognizes them and demands that the captain hunt them down. It would be easy to complain that writer Stanley Tucci has loaded the ship with too many characters and subplots, but as director he has assembled some of the best comic actors in New York and made sure that their sense of timing is as fine as his own.

A sweetly worried young woman steward (Lili Taylor), when not fending off the heavily Germanic advances of the head steward (Campbell Scott) or carrying on a romance with a member of the staff (Richard Jenkins) assigned to capture the stowaways, tries to find places for the actors to hide. Dana Ivey is a conniving mother with a seeming wallflower daughter, Hope Davis, who promptly falls in love with a suicidal band singer (Steve Buscemi). Isabella Rossellini turns up as a deposed Baltic queen. In addition, a gangster and his moll are hatching an illegal scheme, an African sheik is looking for passion, a crazy tennis pro decides Maurice reminds him of a Greek statue, and the first mate is preparing to erase all class differences by blowing up the ship.

There’s method in all the madness, and if Arthur’s insistence that good actors play their characters small is contradicted by the movie’s outsized gestures and exaggerated pratfalls, Tucci’s precise direction keeps it on a sure course to laughter.

Joseph Cunneen was for many years editor of Cross Currents.

National Catholic Reporter, October 23, 1998