It was as inevitable as the full moon: the materialization of Anna Quindlen’s semiautobiographical novel into a Hollywood tearjerker angling for Oscarhood, Meryl Streep perfectly going through the motions of terminal disease, the booming piano chords instructing us with semaphore-like subtlety to weep, the New England house so lavishly appointed and quilt-cozy it’s ready for a Country Living photo spread. Of course, tearjerkers like One True Thing have one function, not to explore the grievous emotional terrain of watching someone you love rot away from cancer, but to tell us what we want to hear, that the crisis will make us whole and that, with the right amount of ripe background music, we’ll “learn about ourselves.”
At least this treacle, directed by Carl Franklin, has a modicum of dignity. Renée Zellweger is the pushy, cold-hearted New York magazine writer who must, at the behest of her scholarly prof Dad (William Hurt), return home to the family manse when her bubble-headed, control-freak supermom (Streep) comes down with an unspecified malignancy. There’s a Bergman movie in here trying to escape, but what we get instead is Zellweger comically destroying the kitchen (and what a kitchen!) cooking lunch, not unlike Barbara Stanwyck’s careerist-at-the-stovetop antics in Christmas in Connecticut. When she’s not grousing about housework, she’s pouting like a kindergartner that her father doesn’t pay enough attention to her. The machinations of the death weepie come at you in slow motion like badminton birdies–everybody suffers silently amid the mahogany moldings and antiques, and every 10 minutes somebody has a declamatory outburst–but the performances are at least filled with interesting bits of business. Streep and Hurt, two of the best gestural actors working, let the showboating tics fly fast and thick. Zellweger is mostly reactive, but she scores one home run during a caroling scene simply by freezing her face in grief.
Quindlen’s book is wry and deeply sad in its prose, but watching actors run this very simple maze is significantly less entertaining, or convincing. There are surprises, such as how, although Streep suffers with her cancer for only one holiday season, everyone nevertheless seems pretty eager to grind up the morphine tablets and put an end to her misery. Still, I wouldn’t say that a good mercy killing is what the movie deserves exactly, unless I have to sit through the teary monologues again at Oscar time.