Published September 1, 1998
One True Thing, directed by the excellent Carl Franklin (Devil in the Blue Dress and that Arkansas movie with Billy Bob Thornton) and based on the novel by Anna Quindlen, suffers from trying to do too much. It is really three separate stories that are like plants grown too close together, all fighting for the same limited nutrients in one too-small patch of soil. The first story and the one that the screenwriter, Karen Croner, should have stuck with is about a priggish New York feminist called Ellie Gulden (Rene Zellweger) with a high-powered job at New York magazine (and boyfriend trouble) whose “religion is ambition.” She is called home to look after her mother, Kate (Meryl Streep), when the latter gets cancer and finds herself thrown into an unfamiliar and rather frightening domesticity. “The one thing I never wanted to do was live my mother’s life, and there I was, doing it.”
What a silly thing this is to say—since it is hardly possible for us not to live our parents’ lives without neglecting our obligations and even the bare decencies of life—is, oddly, something never really noticed by the film, even though Ellie learns a few lessons in real life from her mother. For she only learns them as one point of view. Being “wife and mother,” as it says on her mother’s tombstone, may not be such a bad thing after all. And maybe dad, though still a bum, is not such a complete bum as for a while she comes to think. But neither of these realizations seems to have any lasting influence on her life. After her mother dies she simply goes back to her apartment and her career-girl life in New York. All that wrenching emotion, all that hard-won understanding has apparently left her unchanged—except for the fact that she’s ready to dump the boyfriend.
The second story is a typical bit of Hollywood propaganda about euthanasia. Poor cancer-riddled mom! “No one should have to live like that,” as both she and her husband, George (William Hurt) say. Again, this is a merely stupid statement whose stupidity the film doesn’t notice. What does “should” mean in that sentence? Is somebody in a position to lay down moral rules for God, who has presumably decided that people do have to live like that? And if there is no God, the statement is even more stupid. But, like everything else in this picture, it is only a gesture meant to demonstrate the speaker’s compassion. Neither Ellie nor her father actually has to act on it because tough old mom—this is the real twist in the tale— gives herself the fatal morphine overdose.
The third story is about the Gulden family, ruled by George, the paterfamilias, who insists on excellence (and the guy’s a college professor? already this is completely unbelievable) and doesn’t want to hear about failure. What kind of traumas have been visited on the heads of poor Ellie and her brother, Brian (Tom Everett Scott), who has scandalously failed his summer class at Harvard in, of all things, American literature, his father’s subject. His failure, Ellie’s driving ambition: two sides of the same coin. But the really ironic thing (as they say in journalese) is that papa himself is a failure. He has been writing a novel for years, Come Back Inn, which he is unable to finish. His supposed friend, the supposed poet laureate, cruelly deflates him about it and he has taken to drink. Or affairs. Or both.
Anyway, the three stories keep getting in each other’s way and so none of them is healthy or robust—not that, on the evidence we see here, they would have been likely to be in any case. We are left with nothing but Meryl Streep’s star turn as dying mom, once again showing us what a hell of an actress she is. As in others of her films, however, her very skill is overpowering to the rest of the movie and makes it look even more sickly than it otherwise would have looked. This is especially unfortunate because both Renee Zellweger and William Hurt are skilled performers in their own right, and both are here almost as marginal to the story as poor Brian or Jordan (Nicky Katt), Ellie’s bumptious boyfriend. The latter, however gets the best line in the picture. Having demonstrated his concern by coming to Ellie’s mother’s funeral he tells her he is sorry for her loss. Ellie replies: “I never knew I could miss someone so much.”
“I missed you too,” says Jordan.