False Notes

Reviews of the latest films.
Sept. 20 1998 3:30 AM

False Notes

One True Thing isn't.

One True Thing
Directed by Carl Franklin
Universal Pictures


Pecker
Directed by John Waters
Fine Line Features


Rush Hour
Directed by Brett Ratner
New Line Cinema

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It was a disconcerting experience, waiting to enter the theater to see One True Thing. The earlier screening was ending, and out came one woman after another with tears streaming down her face or eyes bloodshot from weeping. "I cried during the first scene and never stopped crying," said one to another, then joined the long line for the ladies' room. Later, watching the movie, I found myself nearly sobbing, too, except from boredom. One True Thing isn't a snickerfest like Beaches (1988), and it isn't as emotionally pornographic as parts of last year's As Good as It Gets. It's pretty much inert. But my benumbed responses don't account for all those weepers leaving the theater or for the snuffling and nose blowing I heard during my own screening. No, the movie's themes are enormously resonant, which makes its doddering tastefulness that much more frustrating.

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One True Thing is based on a decent, understated novel by Anna Quindlen, the story of Ellen Gulden, an ambitious young magazine writer who moves from Manhattan back to her small hometown to care for her cancer-ridden mother. Never close to this unassuming homemaker, Ellen returns reluctantly, at the behest of her father-mentor, an imposing professor of literature at a small, middling college who maintains that he's too busy to tend to his wife. In the course of the book, Ellen learns that her father's life, while ostensibly rich in literary-philosophical meaning, is a sham, while the real meaning--and bravery--can be found in her mother's household and community rituals and in how she faces death. In the last 100 pages, Ellen goes on trial for her mother's mercy killing and only then manages to remove herself, with bitterness, from her father's constellation.

The film, directed by Carl Franklin from a script by Karen Croner, throws most of its weight onto the mother-daughter relationship, which wouldn't be a problem if Croner knew how to dramatize it. The novel includes a scene in which the mother, Kate, is too weak to prepare an elaborate luncheon for a group of women, so her daughter dons the apron and, under Kate's direction, cooks a successful meal. In the movie, Kate (Meryl Streep) passes out on the sofa while Ellen (Renée Zellweger) comically botches whatever she touches, and Franklin goes for cheap laughs with shots of burning chicken paillards, a smoldering chocolate cake, and plates on which the food has been left uneaten. Think of the possibilities in Quindlen's original--the rapport that might have developed as Ellen sautés and mixes and bakes and Kate offers her expertise. That could have been the core of the picture, right there, and Franklin and Croner toss it into the trash. When, later, the newly domesticated Ellen whips up a masterful Thanksgiving dinner, her skills have arrived out of nowhere.

One True Thing taps into the same yearnings as Field of Dreams (1989), only for mothers and daughters instead of fathers and sons. That earlier work, impossibly fraudulent on every level, dramatized the ways in which baby boomers, who came of age with the counterculture, rejected their daddies along with their daddies' conservative values, only to be left with an emptiness filled only by, gulp, a supernatural baseball game. One True Thing doesn't employ fantasy (at least not overtly) but tries to stir similar regrets about the feminist dismissal of housewives: You moved to New York and the heartless magazine world, you dressed in black, you rejected Mom. But look how you barely knew her! How she held your home together! Look at how it was her--not otherwise engaged Dad--who gave your life its true foundation!

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T his foundation is embodied by Streep, who might be the biggest reason the film goes wrong. The central fact of Kate is that she's an invisible woman--always taken for granted, in the background, doing things but never really registering. Employing an accent that's straight out of Fargo, Streep clucks and flutters and sighs and acts so ostentatiously industrious that it's hard to imagine anyone not noticing (or not wanting to bludgeon) her. Kate is a character whose face you should want to scrutinize for hints of a larger awareness, but I found it hard to look at Streep, who's always busy radiating virtue. Later, ash faced with cancer, she's paradoxically easier to watch (she does less), and she hits some convincing notes of pain. But when she finds her tongue and protests the injustices of literature, in which "clever" girls are always depicted as superior to merely "good" ones, she's pathetically unconvincing. The dots remain unconnected. As her husband, William Hurt is an expert at appearing to think deep thoughts, but the character's groggy pretentiousness and the actor's merge uncomfortably. Hurt plays George from the movie's point of view instead of the character's: The professor's self-absorption and obliviousness are so apparent from the start that it's a wonder he could ever have fooled anyone.

Franklin, a director of marvelous thrillers such as One False Move (1991) and Devil in a Blue Dress (1995), and of the intricate HBO miniseries Laurel Avenue (1993), must have taken on this project to prove that an African-American filmmaker can bring a fresh perspective to the white-bread tale of mothers and daughters in snowy New England. He does bring his customary leisurely pacing and attention to place, especially in the lovingly coordinated (flowers, flowered wallpaper, chintz) family homestead. What he doesn't provide is a pulse. The film unfolds in flashbacks, as Ellen is interviewed by a district attorney about the circumstances of her mother's death, but the framing device doesn't generate any suspense, and the linking scenes are so clumsily overwritten that the woman might be talking to her therapist.

What holds the film together is Zellweger's Ellen, and not because of anything she does but because she's the only major player who seems to be listening. I first saw Zellweger as a hot pants hell raiser in a miserable Tarantino knockoff called Love and a .45 (1994). She was exuberant, as she was in her star-making turn in Jerry Maguire (1996) and in the same year's superb, largely overlooked drama The Whole Wide World. Unlike Streep, she slips easily into her roles, revealing her disparate characters not through epidemic tics but in how she reacts to the people around her. Through her eyes, even Streep looks halfway human.

So why do people cry at One True Thing? It might be that even an ordinary relationship between a mother and daughter is so fraught--with so much left unspoken--that any film that hammers so relentlessly on that spot will hit a nerve. It might be, too, that Franklin's unhurried tempos give us plenty of time to look back on our own lives and loved ones and to think about the people whose labors we didn't register until they were gone. One True Thing prompted me to call my mom when I got home. Of course, AT&T commercials do that, too, and they get the same point across in under a minute.

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I n Pecker, John Waters seems to wonder aloud if you can ever go home again, especially when your success, like his own, has transformed that home from something authentically tacky into something ironically chic. His eponymous hero (Edward Furlong) is a boyish, happy-go-lucky Baltimore photographer whose pictures of urban grotesques--from fornicating rodents to lesbian strippers to homeless exhibitionists--renders them objects of beauty and wonderment. Acclaimed as a "humane Diane Arbus" by a New York gallery owner (Lili Taylor) and assorted pompous critics and collectors, Pecker finds his haunts suddenly withering under the attention, his subjects demanding model fees, and his girlfriend (Christina Ricci), the compulsively by-the-book proprietor of a laundromat, fleeing his wealthy new cohorts for the safety of her suds.

This is the subversively lovable Waters of Hairspray (1988) rather than the in-your-face deformity maven of Pink Flamingos (1972) and the more mainstream Cry Baby (1990) and Serial Mom (1994). Pecker is a breezy, agreeable picture--a charmer, thumbs-up, three stars--but there's something disappointing about a John Waters film that's so evenhanded and all-embracing, even if its sunniness is "ironic." Waters seems to be trapped in an ironic loop, making movies that look more and more like love-ins, in which name actors go slumming and people like Patty Hearst show up for nudge-nudge-wink-wink cameos. He must know that no one can be shocked when everyone's in on the joke, but he doesn't seem to want (or to be able) to step outside the camp aesthetic and play anything "straight." There's nothing in Pecker that isn't done more brilliantly--and more subversively--every week on Mike Judge's inspired cartoon series King of the Hill.

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