One True Thing is one of those films that is only as good as your
expectations. Because it is an adaptation of Anna Quindlen's most
readable, popular novel about the toll cancer takes on a family, many
people will measure it by its fidelity to Quindlen's extraordinary
book in which the daughter of the cancer-victim is arrested and tried
by a grand jury for the death of her mother. It is one of those cases
where a woman who dies of cancer also dies of an overdose of
painkillers, something we are accustomed to from the newspapers.
Or, One True Thing may be a film that cuts very close to the bone,
because 1 out of 5 Americans today has a direct experience with
cancer, either as a survivor or in the immediate family of a cancer
victim. Now that's such a big demographic that, to my flat-footed
little brain, you don't need to tiptoe around the issue. In fact, the
more directly you deal with the impact of cancer - emotionally,
practically, financially, even metaphysically - the more respect you
show for your audience.
Even if the movie company was worried about taxing the audience's
sensitivity, there were still the critics to think about. Looking
around the screening room, I identified three cancer survivors in one
small room - and those are just the ones I know about. One True Thing
could easily have been a movie to speak to all of us who have been
there - sort of wondering if Heaven does look like the Beverly Hilton
and Hell like the Los Angeles freeways on the evening of the Oscars.
(I don't mean to be flip about life's most serious subject, but I've
earned the right, since as you may by now suspect, I was one of those
three people in the screening room hoping they'd get it right.)
Unfortunately, One True Thing turned into a movie so embarrassed about
the C- word (and I'm not talking about men and commitment), that it
defanged the terrible subject of the novel and tried to concentrate on
just how nice it is to get to know your mother before she dies. It's
impossible not to adore Renee Zellweger as Ellen, who plays the
daughter with the most sensible pain since Shirley McLane hung
similarly tear-drenched laundry out to dry in "Terms of Endearment."
Ellen belongs to a very self-involved family, and nothing short of
cancer could have ever brought them together.
Even the ultimate disease is not enough to pull the father into the
magic circle of love that every family needs and deserves. Ellen's aim
in life has been to emulate her intellectual father, Professor Gulden
played with genuinely tweedy self-esteem by William Hurt. His role
model has offered the only real choice for a brainy daughter with an
aversion to Martha Stewart and an infinity of glue, paste and
bricabrac. Meryl Streep turns her remarkable linguistic abilities on
to the domestic language of Martha S. - simply cooing as she glues
little red feathers on a spool to make a bird. Their disagreement
over what it means to be creative is the fulcrum of their
relationship, as they show us how all creativity compensates for
death. It's all that makes death tolerable when it's lurking under
the front porch.
Anna Quindlen's novel One True Thing is about a daughter going through
a sea- change, as she learns to look beyond herself and Manhattan and
to take seriously, first, her mother's illness, then her mother, then
her father, only to discount him, then to discover in the end that her
mother was stronger than any of them and knew it. The sensitivity and
the point of the book - which isn't all that subtle but is quite
political - is truncated by a cinematic adaptation that wants to turn
it into a feel-good movie.
Fortunately, the actors assume that the sobriety of the story forms
the tight- rope they must walk between their characters' ivory towers
and their place in a world unprotected from inexplicable disease - a
world where, still, somebody must take the blame. The odd thing about
watching the film is that you feel all the way through, as if you are
being prepared for that final act in which Ellen/Renee Zellweger
discovers moral certitude as the truth-teller whom nobody believes -
not even her father. Then we are deprived of that ending.
The movie stops without Ellen's horrific trial taking place. The
family is reduced to a triad of typical relationships: the
mother/daughter bond compensating for patriarchal arrogance and
infidelity. It could have been so much more. They just stopped
filming too soon.
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