Film Tells A Mother-Daughter Story of Terrible Beauty

MERYL STREEP IN POSTCARDS FROM THE EDGE

September 14, 1990|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

It's easy to respect Meryl Streep.Admiration is no problem either .Sainthood, even, I wouldn't object to. But...to actually like her?

The great triumph and delight of "Postcards from the Edge"is that finally, after all those years, all those iconographic performances, those accents, those costumes, that immense, frosty dignity, that unmeltable glacier of reserve ... Meryl Streep is likable.

She giggles, she snickers, she flirts, she wisecracks. She's earthy, sexy, smart, cool, funky. She sings country-western. She looks like she could eat ribs or Mexican and drink beer from a bottle. She looks like she knows the difference between "disinterested" and "uninterested," but doesn't give a damn.

Derived by Carrie Fisher from her own self-evidently autobiographical novel and directed by Mike Nichols, the movie doesn't have much dramatic shape but it's got a great sense of life as lived on this planet, and it reminds us that celebrities are human beings when they're not on talk shows.

Fisher, not a bad actress at all (her witty humorlessness in the "Star Wars" trilogy where she played Princess Leia was extremely effective), is more famously the daughter of show-biz dynamo and legend, the unsinkable Debbie Reynolds, and the semi-famous daughter/famous mother relationship is the center of "Postcards from the Edge."

Shirley MacLaine, also a show-biz dynamo and legend and also unsinkable, plays Mama in this analogue -- she's the famous Doris Mann to Streep's sort-of-famous Suzanne Vale. As the movie opens, poor Suzanne, assailed first by her mother's depleted-uranium density of presence, and second by her tendency to just say yes to any chemical substance offered her, is near narcotized death in a stranger's bed. Dumped off by the mysterious unmasked man (Dennis Quaid) at the emergency room, she soon segues into rehab, and then, her career threatened by her instability, volunteers to live at home -- at 31! -- in order to get a part in a bad movie.

Well, forget the plot, which is so sketchy that "rehab" lasts about seven seconds and is over before you're aware it has started. And forget the frequent but not very interesting is-it-real-or-is-it-movie jokes that director Nichols splatters throughout the doings. And forget the other characters, especially the men, who are cardboard-thin. (This has upset some critics but, excuse me, women have been cardboard-thin in men's movies for so long, it feels more like justice than incompetence.) The three generic XY-chromosomes are Gene Hackman as a fatherly director, reduced to that magnificent voice and those dewy, sensitive eyes; Quaid as a manipulative seducer; and Richard Dreyfuss a nurturing doctor with yet another set of dewy, sensitive eyes. Yawn.

All of that is just a platform to get to the mom-daughter thing, which is a work of terrible beauty. MacLaine's Doris has been a star so long she can't imagine life outside the limelight; thus she's developed a subtle, insinuating vocabulary of self-aggrandizement at the expense of her daughter in specific and the world in general and manages to turn all events -- including her daughter's near death -- into one-woman shows starring herself. She's like a character dreamed up by Albert Brooks -- her decency is locked in mortal struggle with her vanity, and though it's clear she loves her kid, she just can't stop upstaging her. Life is a cabaret. Her anthem is summed up in the rousy, gutsy version she sings -- at her daughter's party, naturally -- of Stephen Sondheim's old-dame battle hymn, "I'm Still Here." Is she ever!

In the wake of this red-headed witch, Streep's Suzanne has developed defense mechanisms over and above the drugs: a cynic's hard-boiled, razor-keen wit, a refusal to honor the sentimental rituals of show biz (in one sense the movie is about mama's old Hollywood vs. Suzanne's new Hollywood), and a sense of irony about the whole thing.

For Streep, it's actually quite a stretch: She's playing a movie actress who would love to be Meryl Streep but just isn't good enough.

The movie gives great banter as these two avatars of differing generations paw at each other.

Daughter: "I can't believe I'm living at home and I'm middle aged!"

Mother: "Darling, you're not middle-aged. I'm middle-aged."

Daughter: "Mother, how many 120-year-old women do you know?"

"Postcards from the Edge" isn't really about much at all. Though it observes the Hollywood drug scene and now and then stops for the de rigueur just-say-no message, it's far more interested in wisecracks than social messages. And, in fact, the "edge" it purports to depict doesn't seem very frightening, since everybody is so consistently amusing. It's more like a gentle, grassy slope on a spring day. But who would go see a movie called "Postcards from the Gentle, Grassy Slope"?

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