One True Thing

One True Thing, directed by the excellent Carl Franklin (Devil in
the Blue Dress
and that Arkansas movie with Billy Bob Thornton) and based on
the novel by Anna Quindlen, suffers from trying to do too much. It is really
three separate stories that are like plants grown too close together, all
fighting for the same limited nutrients in one too-small patch of soil. The
first story and the one that the screenwriter, Karen Croner, should have stuck
with is about a priggish New York feminist called Ellie Gulden (Rene Zellweger)
with a high-powered job at New York magazine (and boyfriend trouble)
whose “religion is ambition.” She is called home to look after her mother, Kate
(Meryl Streep), when the latter gets cancer and finds herself thrown into an
unfamiliar and rather frightening domesticity. “The one thing I never wanted to
do was live my mother’s life, and there I was, doing it.”

What a silly thing this is to say—since it is hardly possible for us
not to live our parents’ lives without neglecting our obligations and even the
bare decencies of life—is, oddly, something never really noticed by the
film, even though Ellie learns a few lessons in real life from her mother. For
she only learns them as one point of view. Being “wife and mother,” as it says
on her mother’s tombstone, may not be such a bad thing after all. And maybe dad,
though still a bum, is not such a complete bum as for a while she comes to
think. But neither of these realizations seems to have any lasting influence on
her life. After her mother dies she simply goes back to her apartment and her
career-girl life in New York. All that wrenching emotion, all that hard-won
understanding has apparently left her unchanged—except for the fact that
she’s ready to dump the boyfriend.

The second story is a typical bit of Hollywood propaganda about euthanasia.
Poor cancer-riddled mom! “No one should have to live like that,” as both she and
her husband, George (William Hurt) say. Again, this is a merely stupid statement
whose stupidity the film doesn’t notice. What does “should” mean in that
sentence? Is somebody in a position to lay down moral rules for God, who has
presumably decided that people do have to live like that? And if there is
no God, the statement is even more stupid. But, like everything else in this
picture, it is only a gesture meant to demonstrate the speaker’s compassion.
Neither Ellie nor her father actually has to act on it because tough old
mom—this is the real twist in the tale— gives herself the
fatal morphine overdose.

The third story is about the Gulden family, ruled by George, the
paterfamilias, who insists on excellence (and the guy’s a college professor?
already this is completely unbelievable) and doesn’t want to hear about failure.
What kind of traumas have been visited on the heads of poor Ellie and her
brother, Brian (Tom Everett Scott), who has scandalously failed his summer class
at Harvard in, of all things, American literature, his father’s subject. His
failure, Ellie’s driving ambition: two sides of the same coin. But the really
ironic thing (as they say in journalese) is that papa himself is a failure. He
has been writing a novel for years, Come Back Inn, which he is unable to
finish. His supposed friend, the supposed poet laureate, cruelly deflates him
about it and he has taken to drink. Or affairs. Or both.

Anyway, the three stories keep getting in each other’s way and so none of
them is healthy or robust—not that, on the evidence we see here, they
would have been likely to be in any case. We are left with nothing but Meryl
Streep’s star turn as dying mom, once again showing us what a hell of an actress
she is. As in others of her films, however, her very skill is overpowering to
the rest of the movie and makes it look even more sickly than it otherwise would
have looked. This is especially unfortunate because both Renee Zellweger and
William Hurt are skilled performers in their own right, and both are here almost
as marginal to the story as poor Brian or Jordan (Nicky Katt), Ellie’s bumptious
boyfriend. The latter, however gets the best line in the picture. Having
demonstrated his concern by coming to Ellie’s mother’s funeral he tells her he
is sorry for her loss. Ellie replies: “I never knew I could miss someone so

“I missed you too,” says Jordan.

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