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