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One True Thing


movie review by
Gary Johnson

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UNIVERSAL PICTURES

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ONE TRUE THING

From his first movie, One False Move (1992), director Carl Franklin has displayed his fascination with the inner lives of his characters. While an action movie plot propelled the crime drama One False Move, Franklin showed uncommon concern for how the characters communicated. For example, when a police detective walked into a house where a murder had been committed, the detective didn't carry the bluster of a Quentin Tarantino or Paul Verhoeven character. He didn't swagger or laugh. He respectfully nodded and said "Hello, Mr. ----" as he stood before the body.

Carl Franklin loves people and how they communicate. And that's why he was the perfect choice to take the director's chair for One True Thing. He knows how to avoid hyping the quiet personal moments. Before a scene has time to build to soap operatic excess, Franklin moves on. And this movie has plenty of opportunities for delving into one-, two-, and three-hanky territory as it presents us with the story of a daughter learning to cope as her mother slowly dies from cancer. However, Franklin and screenwriter Karen Croner keep the focus on the daughter and completely avoid those scenes--long cherished by soap opera lovers--where tears stream down the faces of the lead characters as they sob and embrace.

One True Thing, based on the novel by Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Anna Quindlen, is the story of a determined, young, Harvard-educated journalist who is described by her coworkers as "cold," "condescending," and "remote." She is forced to return home and care for her cancer-stricken mother. Ellen Gulden (Renee Zellweger, of Jerry Maguire) has never been close to her mother. Her mother (Meryl Streep) is a loving, non-judgmental person whose kitchen and craft skills would make Martha Stewart envious, but Ellen has never really valued her mother. Instead, she takes after her father (William Hurt), a career-driven English professor who preaches "less is more" and advises her to use more "muscular words" in her writing.

Ellen returns home to leaf-strewn Langhorne, a picturesque college town, for her father's birthday party. Everyone dresses like their favorite literary characters (which prompts her father to point out that "most of the guests got their literature from Disney"); however, Ellen shows up in her trademark black sweater and slacks, prompting her brother (Tom Everett Scott, who also starred in That Thing You Do) to ask "Who did you come as? Sylvia Plath?"

Her father soon pulls her away from the party and tells her that her mother is ill and asks/orders her to take leave from her job in New York and come home to care for her. His life can't be interrupted. He's insensitive, but it isn't intentional. Throughout their lives together, he has taken his wife for granted, but now with the prospect of losing her becoming a reality, he sees his own life falling apart. He needs someone to help hold the household together. But Ellen has tried to escape from a domestic lifestyle throughout her entire adult life: "The one thing I never wanted to do was live my mother's life and there I was doing it," she says with disgust. However, through her new role, Ellen gradually learns to appreciate her mother's qualities. At the same time, she starts to doubt about her father--and thus, by connection, herself.

One True Thing is largely about getting to know who your family is, about that moment in your life when your father and mother start to become real people, with weaknesses, desires, and dreams of their own--just like everyone else. That's the focal point of the movie. One True Thing is about the extreme circumstances that can force us to look at our parents in a different light and finally see them as real blood-and-flesh people. As Anna Quindlen says in her novel: "Our parents are never real people to us. They are Achilles' heels, dim nightmares, vocal tics, bad noses, hot tears, all handed down and us stuck with them."

During the course of caring for her mother, Ellen discovers that her mother is a lively, luminous soul who loves life's smaller pleasures. But, as Ellen also learns, that doesn't mean she is blind to the rest of the world. She discovers her mother is a passionate, strong woman who believes the most important thing in life is to really be alive in this life and heal yourself and your relationships while you can.

Streep, Hurt, and Zellweger are all excellent. It's especially good to see Hurt in a role that really tests his acting chops. After roles in Michael, Dark City, and Lost in Space, Hurt's career seemed to be on hold. His performance here is possibly his best since The Accidental Tourist (1988). And Tom Everett Scott also scores as the brother who more resembles his mother than his father (and flunks literature class in college!). Meanwhile Streep allows us to see past her character's banal routines and discover the strength and compassion that pushes her forward. However, this movie really belongs to Zellweger. And she's wonderful. Zellweger's vulnerability allows us to sympathize with her even when she's sneering and rolling her eyes in disbelief at her mother's lifestyle.

One True Thing isn't a particularly cinematic movie. It looks and feels like literature first and cinema second. And for that reason, as much as I respect the acting and filmmaking, this isn't a movie that I'll probably return to anytime soon. But for what it sets out to do, One True Thing is an amazing success. Franklin's concern for the humanity behind the potentially melodramatic story makes the insights of the script all the more powerful.


[rating: 3 of 4 stars]

 
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