One True Thing


The director Carl Franklin stunned us all in 1991 with a brilliant little crime film called ‘One False Move,’ about a couple of very bad people who hijack a cocaine deal from some other very bad people, and then find themselves in over their heads. A few years later he wrote and directed the very atmospheric ‘Devil in a Blue Dress,’ from Walter Mosley’s novel. And now he’s directed the new film ‘One True Thing,’ from the Anna Quindlen novel, and I’ll bet he is one sorry dude. This film is high on my list for bomb of the year.

The problem is not necessarily the story as such, which although it’s not at all original is at least worth filming: It’s told by Renee Zellweger, about the part of a year that was taken out of her life by the illness and death from cancer of her mother, who’s played by Meryl Streep. Zellweger is a hotshot writer for New York magazine, and she’s home visiting the family in upstate New York when her father, William Hurt, who’s chair of the English department at the local college, asks her to stay and see her mother through the illness, except that he doesn’t ask her, he just tells her to do it, and she does, because he’s been a self-centered tyrant all her life, and is accustomed to ordering everybody in the family to do his bidding. Which they do.

It’s a story that obviously can have great resonance for us all, so what’s the problem? The problem is that this script has been written, and I assume it’s faithful to the novel, at the level of a screenwriting 101 class. Hurt as the control freak hides his own insecurities with endless demands on his daughter. Streep, up until the final scene, apparently has an IQ of about 80; she’s just Ms. Chirpy-chirp, Ms. Goody-two-shoes, who lives only to please her husband. And when, at the end, we learn more of her than this tissue-paper-thin character we’ve been watching, it simply rings horribly false.

And let me say a word about William Hurt, an actor and I use the word advisedly, with the narrowest range since Charles Bronson and a lot less charisma. He drawls out his lines in the tightest, most constricted voice, as though he just coughed up a big piece of phlegm and it’s stuck somewhere in the back of his throat, so he has to kind of gargle out the words carefully, in order not to hock a louie on camera. I cannot believe that this man still gets paying work in Hollywood.

Zellweger, as the good daughter -- there’s also a younger son, flunking out of Harvard, who’s in the film only so that he can have the obligatory scene in which he finally stands up to his father -- Zellweger, the one true thing in this film, though that is not where the title comes from, is moderately interesting until we come to the conclusion. And out of spite and meanness I’m going to give it all away. We have learned at the beginning that there was an autopsy on the body of her mother, and that she died of an overdose of morphine, which was her painkiller in the last stages of the disease. The question is who did the mercy killing -- Zellweger, Hurt, or Streep herself. The answer is that Hurt did it, but what drives me crazy is that neither the Hurt character nor the movie itself will even acknowledge it. We know that only Hurt could have killed her, but he denies it and the film ends. It runs from its own conclusion. Is that a film or a copout? In the same way that the Hurt character does, the film itself runs and hides from what might have given it a touch of honest truth, what you might call one true thing.

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