One True Thing (1998)

One True Thing posterStarring Renee Zellweger, Meryl Streep, William Hurt, Tom Everett Scott.
Written by Karen Croner based on novel by Anna Quindlen.
Directed by Carl Franklin.

Grade: B

Review by Carlo Cavagna.

Meryl Streep may have received the Oscar nomination, but the real star of this movie is Renee Zellweger (Jerry McGuire), whose energy and vitality, combined with Carl Franklin's understated direction, pumps new life into the dying-nobly-of-a-horrible-disease genre. In fact, One True Thing may even be a bit better than Streep's previous fatal disease movie, Marvin's Room, in which Diane Keaton did the noble dying.

Zellweger plays Ellen Gulden, a New York investigative reporter who returns home at her father's request to take care of her mother, Kate (Streep), who needs surgery. Ellen idolizes her father (William Hurt), a professor of literature, and disdains her mother's contented Middle-American housewife lifestyle. To her horror, Ellen soon finds herself drawn into her mother's world of ladies' clubs and important civic responsibilities, like decorating the Christmas trees in the town square. Yet slowly Ellen learns to appreciate her mother and discovers that her father, George, may not be the perfect man she has always thought him to be.Renee Zellweger

Zellweger may look a child, but she delivers a fully realized and adult performance, even mustering some of the toughness that an investigative reporter should have. Zellweger's childishness works in her favor when Ellen is interacting with her parents. Parents have a way of pushing their children's buttons, even when the children are fully grown. Zellweger captures perfectly the conflicting emotions of an adult forced back into an environment where she feels like she's ten years old again.

William Hurt seems like he's been phoning in his performances for the past ten years. Considered in the 1980s to be one of the world's top actors, Hurt's career is now descending into obscurity. In One True Thing, he stretches himself once again. In Hurt's more half-hearted efforts, his trademark reservedness results in a flat and unemotional performance, but when he's fully invested, as he is here, Hurt is still a master of nuance, expertly conveying all the subtle complexities of his character. Initially a lovable college professor, Hurt gradually fills in his character's negative traits as Ellen's perception of her father changes. Meryl Streep

If anything, Meryl Streep's fine performance is the least remarkable of the three. Perhaps because Streep's acting is so effortless, Kate Gulden doesn't seem like a difficult role for her. For the first half of the movie, Kate is like a character out of Pleasantville, happily baking and sewing and hosting her ladies' club meetings. Kate is almost a cardboard cutout. Her apparent one-dimensionality feels like a weakness in the story. Fortunately, in the second hour, Kate becomes a more complicated figure.

The story and the performances are in good hands with Franklin (Devil in a Blue Dress, One False Move). The only criticism that you can make of Franklin and writer Karen Croner is that the flashback device through which they tell the story is clumsy and unnecessary. Franklin makes up for it, however, by doing a fine job of not beating you over the head with the disease element of the movie. One True Thing is not really about Kate's illness anyway; it's about the tensions and secrets that lie hidden in the relationships between parents and children. The disease is merely a catalyst. One True Thing is a character-driven film, so Franklin allows the characters and the performances to fill the screen.

Review © June 1999 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
© 1999 Universal Studios.

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