Anyone who has watched a close relative die will likely weep buckets over Carl Franklin's new movie, One True Thing. I'm giving away nothing: We know from the opening scene that Ellen Gulden (Renee Zellweger) has lost her middle-aged mother, Kate (Meryl Streep), to cancer. The fact that Kate pre-ordered an autopsy to determine the cause for her daughter's sake implies a good mother, and that – not grief, primarily – is what this movie is about, as told through the rather awkward framing device of Ellen's testimony to the district attorney investigating her mother's death.
One True Thing is adapted from the book by former New York Times columnist Anna Quindlen, a writer more sensible than she is profound. Still, the movie has the best interests of the realist novel – to deepen character types into fleshed-out humans – at heart. When first we see Kate Gulden, tricked out as Dorothy from Kansas to host a surprise birthday party for her husband, she's all type, a stay-at-home mom who takes her philosophy from Erma Bombeck and South Pacific, and who passes her days in the hysterically chipper yellow kitchen from which she organizes bake sales with her women friends, “the Minnies.” Franklin milks the scene for its situation comedy, but he never lowers himself to the “crazy old mom” sniggering that so demeaned Terms of Endearment. In this, as in all his movies – especially Devil in a Blue Dress and the television miniseries Laurel Avenue – Franklin's first order of business is to reclaim dignity and significance for forgotten people.
Played by Streep with the same gentle radiance that raised The Bridges of Madison County from dreadful to bearable, Kate is the kind of woman – unambitious, happily invisible, devoted to her family – our culture routinely lampoons or dismisses. Which is what Ellen, a go-getting New York journalist who worships her writer father, George (played by William Hurt, an actor so burdened by physical tics that no matter who he's playing, he comes across as William Hurt), has done all her life. Until, that is, she reluctantly moves home to care for her ailing mother and discovers that she hardly knows either of her parents, let alone her happy-go-lucky brother Brian (Tom Everett Scott, the cherub who played the lead in That Thing You Do!).
As Ellen grows to appreciate her mother's goodness, intelligence and grace, she uncovers weaknesses in her father that bring about a reversal in her affinities so savage that Kate, despite her enfeebled condition, rallies for a key speech about the complexities of marital love. It's a powerful moment, and one that will go over big with at least one viewer in the White House screening room. It's also the moment when you realize you've become party to a familiar but insidiously '50s gender politics that, for all its 1988 setting, sweeps away decades of feminist insight. For while you've been caught up in the genuinely touching rapport that grows between mother and daughter (Zellweger, with her soft features and worry-wart half-smile, makes a perfect woman in slow crisis), the film has been chipping steadily away at everything Ellen stands for. Her intellectual skills and ambition don't merely pale before the fact that she can't cook or sew – they're actually a liability. “You got a Harvard education, but where is your heart?” chides George when Ellen balks at moving home. Beware, girls: The halls of Harvard echo with the lumbering tread of flinty viragoes swatting away all that comes between them and their brilliant careers. And New York? A viper's nest filled with caddish boyfriends, ruthlessly competitive colleagues and stone-hearted bosses who give no quarter for family illness.
It's one thing to celebrate the life of a woman who is happy to be a wife and mother, quite another to suggest that she's the cookie cutter for righteous womanhood. Never mind that Kate's chosen life is a luxury that only the most well-heeled of her daughter's generation could ever afford. No matter how tactful and sensitive Franklin's direction, he has either rewritten Quindlen, or made himself complicit in a specious polarization that panders to anti-intellectual populism even as it caters to the backlash against the gains of the women's movement. With its cued emotions and glib closure, One True Thing will perform a thousand times better at the box office than Franklin's beautiful, complicated Devil in a Blue Dress, or his astonishing indie sleeper hit One False Move. That's a shame, for in the glaring gap between superior directing and indifferent material lies the corruption of both film and literature into palatable mediocrity.