[Screen It]


(1998) (Renee Zellweger, Meryl Streep) (R)

Blood/Gore Disrespectful/
Bad Attitude
Tense Scenes
Moderate None Heavy *Minor None
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Smoking Tense Family
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Drama: An ambitious, career-minded young woman returns home to care for her sick mother and learns a thing or two about her parents, and herself.
A story told in flashback while a woman is investigated about her mother's death, Ellen Gulden (RENEE ZELLWEGER) is an ambitious investigative journalist fresh out of Harvard in the late 1980's. Desperate to make a name for herself and live up to her father's literary standards, Ellen's ambition often puts a strain on her personal life, including her relationship with her boyfriend, Jordan (NICKY KATT).

Accompanied by her best friend, Jules (LAUREN GRAHAM), Ellen takes a break and returns home for the weekend to celebrate a surprise birthday party for her father, George (WILLIAM HURT), a respected literary professor. Ellen has always revered her father, and enjoyed the company of him and her younger, college-enrolled brother, Brian (Tom Everett Scott). However, she dreads seeing her mother, Kate (MERYL STREEP), a hyper-maternal homemaker whom Ellen sees as living in something resembling the stone age, what with her all encompassing domestic duties.

Things get worse, however, when the news comes back that Kate has cancer and must undergo immediate surgery. Needing someone to care for his wife, maintain his lifestyle, and not wanting an outside nurse to be that person, George asks Ellen to put her career on hold and move back home to care for her mother.

Initially reluctant, Ellen is eventually overcome by guilt. Taking a sabbatical from work, she moves back home to Langhorne, Pennsylvania, hoping to finish her latest investigative piece there. Knowing her daughter isn't much of a homemaker, and believing she'll be fine on her own, Kate, however, isn't thrilled to have Ellen taking care of her. As her condition worsens, though, she welcomes Ellen's help despite her disastrous efforts in the kitchen and her shortsightedness regarding her mother.

As Ellen becomes more proficient in her new domestic chores and even becomes an honorary member of her mother's social club, she begins to discover both good and bad things about her parents and their longstanding relationship. While hoping to continue her investigative probe regarding a U.S. Senator, Ellen soon learns what's really important in life.

If they're fans of someone in the cast or of familial tearjerkers, they might, but older teens are the most likely of any kids who may want to see it.
For language.
  • RENEE ZELLWEGER plays the ambitious and career-minded adult daughter who reluctantly returns home to take care of her mother, and learns a thing or two about her parents after finally seeing them through adult eyes. She also does most of the film's cussing, and is a little drunk in one scene.
  • MERYL STREEP plays the terminally ill mother who turns out to be stronger and more courageous and compassionate then her daughter ever imagined.
  • WILLIAM HURT plays Ellen's father, a respected literary professor whom she's idolized most of her life. We soon learn, however, that longstanding allegations and rumors of his infidelity abound, although we never directly see anything. In addition, he's occasionally something of a chauvinist (regarding domestic chores) and often stays away from home because he can't deal with his wife's terminal illness.

    OUR TAKE: 8.5 out of 10
    Featuring a superb cast, excellent performances, a well-written script and great direction, "One True Thing" should please moviegoers who enjoy films such as "Terms of Endearment." Clearly one of the frontrunners -- in several categories -- for next spring's Oscar broadcast, this is one of those movies loved by tissue manufacturers. With plenty of moments that will get the tears flowing when not eliciting welcomed, familiar and familial laughs, this picture falls into the excellent, but certainly not always pleasant to watch category.

    Much like other films dealing with terminally ill characters, such as 1993's "My Life" (Michael Keaton) and any other number of similar films, the story has a guaranteed lock on working on the audience's emotions. Unlike many of those movies, however, this one lets us know right from the onset that the mother is dead, and adds in the element of the daughter being questioned about that death.

    While it's not a murder mystery per se, the use of flashbacks stemming from the daughter's responses to a district attorney's investigatory questions regarding the events leading up to that death allows the film to unfold efficiently. As helmed by director Carl Franklin ("Devil in a Blue Dress," "One False Move") and written by Karen Croner (who makes her feature film screenwriting debut working from Pulitzer Prize winner Anna Quindlen's 1995 novel), the film fortunately never feels manipulative in eliciting our emotions and wisely avoids such trappings.

    Franklin and Croner have also smartly injected enough bits of humor -- such as Ellen trying to really cook for the first time, and the polite reactions of Kate's social club friends about that -- to offset the human tragedy and emotionally laden moments such as a nicely done rendition of "Silent Night" at an outdoor Christmas choir concert that won't leave a dry eye in the house.

    As such, nothing seems forced and everything seems quite real, and the events and onscreen emotions that unfold come off as not only natural, but also very believable. Beyond the well- written screenplay -- that features some superbly crafted exchanges of dialogue between Ellen and her parents -- most of that stems from the picture's stellar cast.

    Ten-time Oscar nominee Meryl Streep (with wins for "Kramer vs Kramer" and "Sophie's Choice") should easily receive her eleventh nod after this performance. Clearly one of the greatest actresses of all time, Streep effortlessly drops into her character as if she's played her for her entire life. Yet, where other performers may have overacted in the role, Streep subtly brings great and occasional gritty depth and compassion to her performance.

    Equally holding her own against the seasoned Streep, Renee Zellweger ("Jerry Maguire," "The Whole Wide World") continues to grow as an actress and may just receive her first Oscar nomination for this performance. Perfectly capturing the frustration, occasional anger, and bewilderment of discovering that one's parents aren't whom they seemed while growing up with them as a child, Zellweger delivers a great take on her character who transforms as the story unfolds.

    Proving that he's still one of the best -- if not underused -- actors working today, three-time Oscar nominee William Hurt (with a victory for "Kiss of the Spider Woman") likewise creates a compelling character that will definitely earn him yet another acting nomination. Hurt's often underplayed his characters and let his facial expressions do much of the work, and that's definitely the case here.

    As Ellen discovers the true nature and character of her father just as we do, we see Hurt's character unfold like a damaged flower. Completely believable in the role, Hurt creates a man who's simultaneously a jerk and a decent, loving guy rolled into one, and this causes the audience to alternate their reaction and emotions toward him. It's an exceptional performance, and should complete the film's acting trifecta in this year's Oscar nominations.

    On a quick side note, and although inhabiting a much smaller role, it's also nice to see Tom Everett Scott return with a decent performance. After following up his great feature film debut in "That Thing You Do" with the horrible "American Werewolf in Paris" and "Dead Man on Campus," I had nearly lost hope for this young actor, but appearing in this film should resurrect him from what was quickly becoming a "B" movie career.

    Despite the film's many great aspects, it did take me a while to get into the story, perhaps because the family -- unlike many other "Hollywood" familial units -- isn't filled with eccentric or even greatly idiosyncratic characters. Instead, they're just like the family next door in any small town.

    That, however, is what makes the film work, and while my built up interest and emotional stake in the story somewhat waned toward the inevitable end -- as it apparently also did for the many teary-eyed folks around me who weren't crying so much as the story drew to a close -- the overall impression is that of a well-crafted, superbly acted drama.

    Kudos should not only go to the great cast, but also to screenwriter Croner (and source novelist Anna Quindlen) for some great scenes and dialogue, and to director Franklin who steps out well beyond the fare he's tackled before. While it would have been easy for him to make this in the form of yet another made-for-TV movie and to have stirred up and manipulated the emotions with a heavy-handed effort, Franklin manages to pull it all off just right.

    Although not an entirely pleasant film (most dealing with terminal illnesses aren't), the film is ultimately uplifting and should be well-represented come Oscar nomination time. We give "One True Thing" an 8.5 out of 10.

    Here's a quick look at the film's content. Profanity -- in the form of 7 "f" words all coming from Ellen's mouth -- gives the film its R rating, and is yet another case where a film could have jettisoned such language without losing a bit of emotional or dramatic impact. A small range of other, milder words also occur.

    Considering the plot line, the film obviously contains many tense family moments, and the overall terminal illness -- and its physical and emotional aftereffects from which the mother suffers -- may be unsettling to many viewers. Some bad attitudes abound because of this, and there are hints and rumors that the father is having an extramarital affair, but there's never definite proof of that.

    Beyond such issues, and both the father and daughter being somewhat inebriated on separate occasions, the rest of the film's categories have little or no major objectionable material. Although it's doubtful many kids will want to see this film, you may want to take a look through the content listings should you or someone else in your home be interested in it.

    Of special note for those concerned with bright flashing lights, a scene briefly set in a community Halloween haunted house features full screen strobe effects.

  • Ellen and others have wine (and Jules has a beer) at her father's birthday party, at which George later seems a little inebriated.
  • The family has champagne with dinner, and then wine with Thanksgiving dinner.
  • People have drinks in a bar, including Jordan and Ellen, the latter of whom seems a bit drunk (after commenting that it's her first night out in a long time).
  • The family has champagne on New Year's Eve.
  • People drink in a bar, and George may be a little drunk as Ellen helps him home (or he may just be so depressed that he's not functioning quite right).
  • Late in her illness, Kate takes prescription morphine.
  • None.
  • Although we never see anything, there are rumors and hints that George is having an extramarital affair, and he often calls (or has another person call) saying that he has to "work" late. In addition, he occasionally treats both his wife and daughter in somewhat of an old- fashioned chauvinistic way (he expects them to do the cooking, housecleaning, etc..), and then often stays away from home because he can't deal with Kate's terminal illness.
  • Ellen initially has both toward her mother -- seeing her as an old-fashioned housewife/slave -- and later develops both toward her father in relation to the above entry.
  • Ellen and her boyfriend have some of both toward each other, and later he does in particular as he sees other women (and stares at them in bars) while still presumably dating Ellen.
  • Many may find the scenes featuring Kate's illness and failing health as tense, but none are done so in the traditional sense of the category.
  • None.
  • Phrases: "Screwed up" and "Shut up."
  • None.
  • None.
  • None.
  • At least 7 "f" words, 5 "s" words, 2 hells, 1 S.O.B., 1 damn, and 5 uses of "God," 4 each of "G- damn" and "Oh my God," 3 of "Oh God," 2 each of "Jesus" and "Jesus Christ" and 1 use of "My God" as exclamations.
  • After his birthday party, George stops Kate from going upstairs and says, "You're not going to bed -- you're not going to sleep, anyway" (implying he wants to fool around).
  • Although we never see anything, there are rumors and hints that George is having an extramarital affair. For example, while Ellen waits for her father, she sees some students knock at his office door. When he doesn't respond, one of them asks the other "Who do you think he's doing now?" and other guesses that it's his T.A. (teacher's assistant).
  • As Ellen helps her frail mother out of the bathtub, we see just a glimpse of part of the side of Kate's bare breast.
  • George smokes cigars a few times.
  • Brian carries around a fake, Sherlock Holmes pipe at a costume party.
  • People in a bar smoke.
  • Considering what the film is about (via the plot description), it's filled with many tense family moments (and some strong confrontational scenes) regarding parent/adult child relationships and the illness and death of a parent.
  • Cancer and how individuals and families deal with that, especially when it's a terminal case (such as caring for them, the question of assisted suicide, etc...).
  • How adult children often see their parents differently then when they were kids.
  • Adult children having to take care of their parents once they get sick (or older).
  • Kate throws several plates to the kitchen floor in anger.

  • Reviewed September 15, 1998

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