Starring: Renee Zellwegger, Meryl Streep, William Hurt, Tom Everett Scott
Rated R for Language
We have a peculiar ability to go after those who deny us affection with single-minded zeal that borders on obsessive. When someone says "not good enough," we try harder. And harder. Even when doing so causes us to alienate those who truly love us. I don't know why, but we all do it in one way or another. Maybe it's some sort of "survival of the fittest" mechanism that was left over from when such things actually mattered.
The Gulden family lives in that part of New England that you see in the pages of Better Homes and Gardens and the dusty libraries of out of the way bookshops. There's a chill in the air that makes you wear a turtleneck but at the same time makes you feel nostalgic. In other words, it's Norman Rockwell's playground updated for 1987. Ellen (Zellwegger) can't stand either of her parents. Her mother Kate (Streep) is an endlessly cheerful busybody who makes June Cleaver look like Phyllis Dickerson from "Double Indemnity." Her father George (Hurt) is a talented but arrogant writer who, despite her attempts to impress him with her own writing, withholds praise ("Writer to writer...less is more," he says). When Kate gets cancer, he forces her to risk losing her job and come home to care for her mother, since her brother Brian (Scott) is at school, he's busy teaching and Kate "doesn't like people invading her house." Ellen soon realizes that her parents aren't as simply defined as she thought, and she may be doing the same thing to Kate that George is doing to her.
To director Carl Franklin's credit, "One True Thing" seeks to be more than your average tearjerker. He's more interested in exploring the relationships between Ellen and her parents and how they change rather than detailing Kate's illness. I appreciate that; after all, there are far too many movies that settle for that. Unfortunately, the script just isn't there. These relationships feel half-explored, which dilutes the film's strengths.
The acting is top form, but with a cast like this, could we really expect anything less? No one does any cartwheels or showboating, but they don't sleepwalk through their parts. Renee Zellwegger has the same kind of single-minded determination that will blind anyone to what they're missing. William Hurt has little trouble playing a loving husband whose main faults are selfishness and ego. And Meryl Streep is...well, if you can get her in a movie, you don't need much more.
Most tearjerkers are shamelessly manipulative, piling on the melodrama with little subtlety to get the tear ducts flowing. "One True Thing" is the opposite. Perhaps aware of this common pitfall or maybe because he overestimated the strength of the script, Franklin holds back. It's affecting, but a little distant.
I can't recommend this film, but if you do see it, you're time won't feel wasted.