This 'Thing' is one true weeper Review: Meryl Streep brings needed restraint to this melodrama about dysfunction and healing.

September 18, 1998|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. That much we know. But what about the special evil that lurks at the heart of happy families?

Such is the central premise of "One True Thing," Carl Franklin's sympathetic if by-the-numbers adaptation of the Anna Quindlen novel. An unremarkable story of family dysfunction, catharsis and healing, "One True Thing" is dragged from a fatal pool of treacle by Meryl Streep and Renee Zellweger, both of whom turn in brave, unsentimental performances.

As a mainstream domestic melodrama, "One True Thing" takes material usually reserved for the Lifetime channel and network movies of the week and gives it a slightly more sophisticated gloss; when tears are shed -- and they will be shed -- at least filmgoers won't hate themselves in the morning.

Zellweger plays Ellen Gulden, an ambitious young journalist who lives in New York and survives on a diet that's mostly coffee and careerist adrenalin. The daughter of a college professor (William Hurt) and a homemaker (Streep), Ellen, like most women her age, has a conflicted relationship with her family. She idolizes her emotionally withholding dad and holds her artsy-craftsy mom in condescending contempt.

We meet the doting Kate decked out as Dorothy from "The Wizard of Oz" at a surprise costume party, and the effect is as ridiculous as it is endearing. She's the kind of mother everyone else loves but whose obsession with her kids and house drives everyone close to her to distraction.

Ellen returns to Manhattan, to a heavy-duty assignment and a hot-and-cold boyfriend (Nicky Katt), when her father suddenly calls her back. Kate has been diagnosed with cancer, and Ellen must return home to take care of her. "One True Thing," which is told in flashbacks while Ellen is being questioned by a prosecutor about her mother's death, traces the shifting emotional economy of the Gulden household, as Ellen discovers that her mother has much to teach her, her father has a secret, shameful life and that she may be tyrannized by the very options she's trying to keep open.

As a movie about how catastrophic illness and death can bring a family closer together, "One True Thing" recalls the recent film "Marvin's Room," in which Streep also starred. Admittedly she was more appealing in the previous film, where she played a feisty, hard-bitten broad in the throes of serious denial. Here, she is cast as a sort of suburban Camille, and although she brings admirable restraint and humor to the role of the suffering Kate, watching her deteriorate is predictably excruciating (and excruciatingly predictable).

But just when you think you can't take another bit of bathos, she delivers the film's defining moment in a Streepian moment of heartbreak. When Kate speaks to Ellen about happiness and compromise and connection, she makes the entire preceding hour and 45 minutes worth it.

There are some other authentic moments, such as the moving sequence when Ellen uncomfortably joins a ladies' choir during a Christmas celebration in the town square, or when Kate stops briefly to listen to the town "hum." And Streep sums up the movie's core issue of mother-daughter dynamics in just one throwaway line: "But what about your job and your little apartment?" Zellweger does an able job of responding to these subtle commentaries -- she touches on just the right combination of affection and impatience.

For all of Streep and Zellweger's strengths, "One True Thing" suffers from its share of shortcomings. Ellen's relationship with her boyfriend is extraneous, and the movie's murder-mystery framing device, and as well as its heartwarming conclusion, thuds with clunky artificiality.

The ballast of "One True Thing" seems to be taken up in set pieces involving Ellen's cooking, Kate and George dancing to Bette Midler and cute goings-on at the town fair. For filmgoers who find such scenes comforting rather than cloying, "One True Thing" may well prove to be just their cup of chicken soup.

'One True Thing'

Starring Meryl Streep, William Hurt, Renee Zellweger

Directed by Carl Franklin

Rated R (language)

Released by Universal Pictures

Running time: 120 minutes

Sun score: ** 1/2

Pub Date: 9/18/98

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