Feb 21, 2015

Review: One True Thing (1998)

One True Thing was nominated for a single Academy Award and it's no real surprise which one it was. With Meryl Streep as part of the cast, do I really need to spell it out? It's all too easy to nominate her as best actress every time she's in a movie practically. I got no problem with that though because Streep truly is something special, an anomaly really. Although people might be sick of her getting so much praise, her performance in One True Thing is just another feather in her cap.

The 71st Academy Awards are famous, or infamous really, for awarding the Best Actress award to Gwyneth Paltrow in Shakespeare in Love. OK, most of the infamy is for giving Shakespeare in Love Best Picture over movies like Saving Private Ryan, Life is Beautiful and The Thin Red Line. But still, doesn't Paltrow winning feel like a typical Harvey Weinstein job? I guess I can't really say much though because I've never even seen Shakespeare in Love. It's just that the consensus seems to be that SiL was the wrong choice at the time and I can't help feeling so strongly about Meryl Streep in One True Thing.


Genre: drama
Directed by: Carl Franklin
Produced by: Jesse Beaton, Harry J. Ufland, Leslie Morgan, etc.
Written by: Karen Croner
Music by: Cliff Eidelman
Running time: 127 minutes
Production company: Monarch Pictures, Ufland, Universal Pictures
Distributed by: Universal Pictures, United International Pictures, Columbia Broadcasting System, etc.
Country: United States
Language: English
Budget: $30,000,000
Box office: $26,616,840 (Worldwide)

IMDb entry
Rotten Tomatoes entry

Starring: Meryl Streep, Renée Zellweger, William Hurt, Tom Everett Scott, Lauren Graham, Nicky Katt, James Eckhouse, Patrick Breen, Gerrit Graham, David Byron, Stephen Peabody, Lizbeth MacKay, Mary Catherine Wright



Ellen Gulden (Renée Zellweger) is working hard and putting in long hours to carve out a place for herself as a writer at New York magazine. She's forced to put her career on hold however and move back home when her mother Kate (Meryl Streep) becomes sick. She does this at the behest of her father George (William Hurt) whose absences become increasingly apparent as Kate's health deteriorates. 


If One True Thing looks like a typical ill family member weeper, that's because it sort of is. Adapted from Anna Quindlen's 1994 novel of the same name, I'd say that there are two things that keep it afloat. The first thing are the performances and the second thing is the format of the narrative which alternates between three different time periods. 

Everything in One True Thing happens through Ellen's perspective. We see snippets of her as a young girl growing up and learn of her deep respect and admiration for her father who's a writer and a college professor. Clearly that's something still true in the near-present as Ellen seeks her father's criticism when it comes to her writing. There are also some scenes that take place in the present as Ellen answers some questions in regards to her mother with a district attorney (James Eckhouse).

The nonlinear narrative does a great job at keeping you in the dark at the beginning of the film and then patiently taking off the sheet as time goes by. This has the effect of raising the emotional level when it counts and giving a look into Ellen's mind and her motivations. There's a flip that happens in regards to how we perceive Ellen's parents that's also wonderfully done.

Like I said before, Meryl Streep's performance is truly remarkable. Her character Kate is a homemaker in the most traditional sense, content in running her husband's and children's lives to ensure that they run as smoothly as possible. She's almost sickeningly sweet and she's quite the busybody as she participates extensively in a community group responsible for decorating the town during different holidays. It's pretty easy to understand Ellen's disdain for the kind of life that Kate leads as she aspires to more.

Still, Streep plays Kate in such an honest way. I know it's Meryl Streep who's on screen, but I think that there are times when Streep isn't there at all. All we see is Kate in those moments. Streep is able to disappear into her characters quite well if you ask me and one of the only occasions that come to my mind as Streep failing to become her character is in The Iron Lady. That's Meryl Streep playing Margaret Thatcher, not Margaret Thatcher played by Meryl Streep. That's a criticism for another day though.

One True Thing features an early and typically strong Renée Zellweger performance that's also worth some praise. She conveys her character's emotions very convincingly and I found it really easy to buy her as the daughter of Meryl Streep and William Hurt. Hurt himself is also great to watch as a character who is at times intimidating, frustrating and pitiful. There's definitely nothing bad to say about the performances here.

The weepy nature of One True Thing only really pops up at around the 3/4 mark. I've seen worse in terms of trying to buy a viewer's tears, but Carl Franklin makes sure that doesn't happen for the most part. We've already grown to appreciate the film's characters and it's not like Franklin goes completely overboard with the emotional drama. I do have a bit of a beef with a certain "Silent Night" Christmas scene though.

I was relieved that One True Thing didn't end up being a movie seemingly sponsored by tissue-makers. Great performances and an interesting narrative keep it from falling into that trap and clearly Carl Franklin knew that he had to take a patient approach if he wanted to win over viewers. I was ready to roll my eyes when I started OTT and I was relieved to find that I didn't have to more than once. 



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