Home Is a Beautiful `Thing'

Streep shines in drama about ailing mother

Friday, September 18, 1998


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WILD APPLAUSE ONE TRUE THING: Drama. Starring Meryl Streep, Renee Zellweger and William Hurt. Directed by Carl Franklin. (R. 110 minutes. At Bay Area theaters.)


Don't mistake ``One True Thing'' for ``Terms of Endearment,'' another movie about a family and what happens when someone gets sick and dies.

This is far from a disease-of- the-week picture, and it's not the usual number about families coming together in bad times. Illness is a backdrop for a more complicated story about a young woman's finding her values tested and discovering the mother she took for granted.

The perspective is unique. ``One True Thing'' is a kind of feminist celebration of housework. The movie honors what it means to be a housewife, not in the usual sentimentalized way but from a hard-edged perspective that recognizes the hours, the creativity and the sacrifice involved.

This point of view sneaks up over time. Those not familiar with Anna Quindlen's novel will, at first, think they're seeing something else -- a story about a tal ented daughter and her relationship with a brilliant but exacting father.

Though we know from the first five minutes that the mother dies -- the story is told in flashback -- the movie still persuades us into thinking that Dad is the main event. Mom, as played by Meryl Streep, at first seems merely a light comic presence. That we're so easily persuaded only reinforces the movie's point.

In a case of unexpected casting, Renee Zellweger (``Jerry Maguire'') plays the daughter, an aggressive young journalist. The character's fierceness beautifully plays off of the mildness of Zellweger's demeanor. We come to recognize the character's drive not as inevitable but as the result of her growing up in a particular family.

The daughter is a chip off the old block. Her father (William Hurt), a professor of literature and an award-winning essayist, is the kind of fellow who will open a conversation saying, ``Back when I was 20 and working for the New Yorker . . .''

The daughter wants only to have Dad's approval and a big journalistic career, but Mom's illness intrudes. At Dad's insistence, daughter puts her career on hold and comes home. The picture shows what happens when a career woman is forced into inhabiting a world of cooking, cleaning and Christmas-tree decorating.

Director Carl Franklin (``Devil in a Blue Dress'') finds the humor in that situation, and throughout steers the film clear of schmaltz. There isn't a false moment.

Ultimately, ``One True Thing'' is not really about an adult woman's relationship with her father or mother. It's more subtle. It's about her relationship with the internalized Mom-and-Dad within -- and how a crisis causes her to reassess what she values. The daughter's gradual recognition of the part of herself most like her mother isn't a sappy discovery. It's framed in hard terms and has to do with turning away from a one-sided, masculine, conflict- oriented view of existence.

Hurt and Zellweger are sensitive and memorable. To their credit, they form more than just a backdrop for one of the year's great performances -- Streep's.

After ``One True Thing,'' critics who persist in the fiction that Streep is a cold and technical actress will need to get their heads examined. She is so instinctive and natural -- so thoroughly in the moment and operating on flights of inspiration -- that she's able to give us a woman who's both wildly idiosyncratic and utterly believable.

The role demands a lot. Though Mom is ditzy and, at times, irritating, we come to recognize her as the family's most original creative spirit. The housewife and mother emerges in ``One True Thing'' as not only the wisest and most humane figure in a family of bright lights, but as the most talented.

This article appeared on page C - 3 of the San Francisco Chronicle

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