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Review: 'One True Thing' is one fine movie

Web posted on: Friday, September 18, 1998 3:18:59 PM

From Reviewer Paul Clinton

(CNN) -- Meryl Streep has done some of her best work playing long-suffering women. We agonized alongside her when she was a French lieutenant's woman, when she came out of Africa, when she lived near a bridge in Madison County, when she was a Kramer fighting another Kramer, and when she had a really good accent, was named Sophie, and had a very tough choice to make. Now, she's playing a Martha Stewart clone with cancer, and you're going to cry, cry, cry.

I'm not giving anything away here when I tell you that in "One True Thing," Streep plays a woman dying from cancer. You find that out in the first scene. On the surface, this plot sounds like movie of the week (aka disease of the week) material. Ah, but no, no, no, no. Working from a beautifully adapted screenplay by Karen Croner based on Anna Quindlen's bestselling novel of the same name, and in the hands of Streep, William Hurt and Renee Zellweger, this film soars into the stratosphere.

Streep is luminous as the hypermaternal Kate. When it comes to "happy homemakers," Kate's the real thing. Kate is the person who holds the family together. She's the glue. But no one understands her role until suddenly she can no longer fill it.

Paul's Pix: "One True Thing"

Windows Media: 28k or 56k
Real: 28k or 56k

This is not a unique statement, but Meryl Streep is astounding. The way she shades and layers her character as she gradually succumbs to cancer is remarkable. During many of her scenes they might as well put a crawl across the screen saying "Oscar nomination."

Hurt good at self-involved

Hurt is equally as good playing a complex man whose head may be in the clouds, but his feet are made of clay. He's a very self-involved character, which is a perfect role for Hurt. George seems to be the antithesis of his down-to-earth wife. However, like his wife, George is also hyper, but in his case he's hypercritical. He's an egotistical literature professor at a local college who feels the whole world revolves around him.

Zellweger plays Ellen, an extremely ambitious magazine writer working in New York City while her parents live in an idyllic little town in New Jersey. Ellen idolizes her literary-minded father. In fact, she's trying to become him through her writing. But she has little in common with her mother, who makes the aforementioned Martha Stewart look like an underachiever on Valium.

When her mother becomes ill, her father uses emotional blackmail to get Ellen to give up her job and move back home ... back into a life that she has run from all of her life. Once there, her long-held attitudes about her parents are turned inside out.

Mother-daughter, daughter-dad relationships

Family relationships are always tricky, and they make great raw material for drama and comedy. Since I've never been a mother or a daughter, and that situation is unlikely to change, I can't say for sure that the particular relationship between a mother and daughter is a very complex one.

However, everyone says it is -- just ask Shirley MacLaine and Debra Winger, although in their film, "Terms Of Endearment," it's the daughter who gets to die. Now, in "One True Thing" we also get to explore the father-and-daughter dichotomy. This is not your average cliché about Daddy's little girl who can do no wrong. It's just the opposite.

But mainly, this is a tale about loss. Anyone who has been the major caregiver for a loved one who is dying will immediately relate to this film. The anger and fear, the hopelessness and helplessness are there in abundance.

All the characters in this wonderful film take emotional journeys, but Ellen has to walk the longest road, and Zellweger plays her with great passion and compassion. "One True Thing" is one fine movie, and all three lead actors have delivered performances that will be in serious contention for Academy consideration.

Forget about bringing a handkerchief to this film. Bring a whole box of Kleenex. At the screening I attended, the whole audience was sobbing. I'll guarantee you one thing. If you're lucky enough to have a mother who is still living, you'll want to call her after you see this film.

Gentlemen, start your engines. The race for Oscar has begun.

"One True Thing" is rated PG-13 with a running time of 124 minutes.

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