A six-hankie weeper in the multiple-Oscar winning, adult melodrama tradition, "One True Thing" combines considerable moviemaking craftsmanship with exactly the kind of show-stopping performance you'd expect from Meryl Streep playing a dying mom. (It's probably exotic, at this point, for Streep to perform with an upper-middle-class East Coast accent, but she can begin dusting off a spot on her mantel in any case.) At 127 minutes, the movie's sheer lugubrious length allows for enough powerful moments that it'll batter many tender-hearted souls into tearful submission. For those who remain unbludgeoned, however, "One True Thing" will largely seem a turgid, endless enterprise, which -- to paraphrase a writer wittier than I -- spans the emotional gamut from A to B, and offers up a vision of the American family so mind-bendingly conventional it makes "As Good as It Gets" look like scathing social critique.
Things begin promisingly enough: When young New York magazine reporter Ellen Gulden (Renie Zellweger) returns home to Langhorne, a leafy, gracious town somewhere in the Northeastern megalopolis, for her dad's 55th birthday party in 1987, she seems to be walking into a haute-WASP suburban burlesque. Her mother, Kate (Streep), an appallingly sunny Suzie Homemaker type, actually answers the door dressed as Dorothy from "The Wizard of Oz" -- she has asked guests to come as their favorite literary characters because her husband, George (William Hurt), is an esteemed academic who won the National Book Award for his study of T.S. Eliot. When Ellen and her best friend, Jules (the appealing Lauren Graham), show up in identical black minidresses and tights, Ellen's brother quips, "Who are you guys? The Sylvia Plath twins?"
These early scenes offer far sharper observations on the nature of family life than anything that happens after the tear-jerker plot line kicks in. Ellen feels the wounded, besotted love of a daughter for the illustrious father whose opinion she takes much too seriously, and she can't stand her mother or the Minnies, Kate's Stepfordian group of do-gooder Langhorne housewives. But even Ellen understands that the marriage between the distracted academic and the ditzy nest keeper -- who thinks Jane Austen and Louisa May Alcott are too anti-feminine -- has its own mysterious internal chemistry; like all successful relationships, it functions on a level invisible to even the closest outsiders.
But when Kate is diagnosed with cancer and Ellen is guilt-tripped into moving back home to take care of her, this subtle, comic interplay, suggestive of a much better movie we'll never get to see, is swept away in a roaring Niagara of overdetermined pathos. At various times, Hurt and Streep, dignified veterans who have survived worse movies than this (and quite a few better ones, thankfully), manage to poke their heads above the torrent. Streep may sometimes be ridiculed as a caricature of the overly serious method actor, but she knows what she's doing. Anyone who's ever suffered through the death of a loved one from cancer will find her portrayal of the needy, emaciated and pain-stricken Kate, torn between despair and attempts to be noble, distressingly close to the bone. Hurt is less memorable, but George's preoccupied, self-involved demeanor, endearing at first, becomes almost sinister as Ellen watches him retreat into booze and womanizing -- an eerie if familiar caricature of the glib, sycophantic, immature husband.
Zellweger, who is meant to be the emotional center of this triangle, is instead its catastrophically weak link. Her acting is perfectly acceptable in the early going when the film has some buoyancy and the other two actors can support her, but she's a mousy, inoffensive presence at best, never evincing the charisma the role demands. Ellen seems less like a hard-bitten big-city journalist than a domineering Girl Scout patrol leader or perhaps a whiny head cheerleader -- at any rate, a character significantly less mature than Buffy the Vampire Slayer. As her mother grows sicker and her father increasingly disappoints her, she spends much of the movie pouting, stomping her feet and turning various shades of mottled red meant to convey rage, or self-doubt, or perhaps just exasperation.
Evidently the point of this whole exercise (adapted by screenwriter Karen Croner from the novel by former New York Times columnist Anna Quindlen) is that the ambitious '80s career woman needs to integrate the lessons learned and sacrifices made by her stay-at-home mom in order to become a well-adjusted grown-up. Beyond this conception and its relentless downward slope toward Kate's death, "One True Thing" really has no plot.
This might have worked if the director and lead actress had the kind of intense mutual understanding that, say, Ingmar Bergman had with Liv Ullmann, or John Cassavetes had with Gena Rowlands. But Carl Franklin -- who has yet to live up to the potential of his gripping 1992 debut, the marvelous neo-noir film "One False Move" -- seems ill-suited to this cast and this material. With Zellweger standing by like a weeping onlooker at a road accident, "One True Thing" deteriorates into a lurid, almost hallucinatory horror show, snatching incoherent fragments from "Cries and Whispers," "Meet Me in St. Louis" and "It's a Wonderful Life" as it careens to a close. When the Gulden family reunites for Langhorne's almost fascistic Christmas-tree ceremony, I felt as if I were watching the dire climax of some dystopian sci-fi epic, rather than a picturesque American catharsis. In this film's emotional universe, resistance is futile, and Soylent Green is people.