Rated R - Running time: 2:07 - Released 9/18/98

Over the years, Meryl Streep has built a list of awards and nominations as long as your arm. Her mantelpiece is surely sagging by this time, and her performance in Carl Franklin's One True Thing will do nothing to help its condition. But perhaps the dark horse of this movie is Renée Zellweger. Although her role doesn't call for the same kind of power needed from Streep, Zellweger, who gave us an inkling of her talent in Jerry Maguire, proves she can hold her own in the same room with the reigning queen of contemporary drama. The subtlety of her transition is nicely executed.

The setting is the small town of Langhorn, New York, where George Gulden (William Hurt) is chair of the English department at a small college. His daughter Ellen (Zellweger) is a hard-shelled NYC news writer. She travels home to attend a birthday party for her dad, politely declining her mother Kate's (Streep) request that all attendees dress as their favorite literary character. Ellen idolizes her father and respects his critical commentaries on her work, but cannot comprehend why Kate is so infatuated with being a homemaker.

When the family learns that Kate has cancer, George asks Ellen to move back home for a while to help take care of her. Though Ellen is reluctant to give up her job, he convinces her that she can work from home. Also, he strokes her ego by asking her to write an introduction to be included in his upcoming book. This is such an honor for her that she accepts the mom-sitting job.

But Ellen is soon in over her head. Kate is involved with a ladies' club called the "Minnies," a group of women who regularly decorate the town for holidays. Since Halloween is right around the corner, Kate has a full schedule for the upcoming months, right through Christmas. Ellen's list of duties quickly grows to include donning a witch costume, roasting a turkey, and making ornamental cardinals for the Christmas tree, all while struggling to continue her career as best she can and keep her relationship going with her boyfriend. She is even made an honorary "Minnie," which she sees as a dubious distinction. But everything changes when she discovers an unsettling secret about her dad.

Based on the best-selling novel by former New York Times columnist Anna Quindlen, Karen Croner's screenplay shows the kind of torsion exerted on a family when a member is diagnosed with a life-threatening illness. Though Streep is saddled with playing the victim, she does it without making Kate a pathetic whiner or an unbelievably courageous heroine. But Zellweger's task may be even a bit more difficult than Streep's, since the entire film is seen though her eyes. She must come to many revelations about her mother, her father, and herself, and each one changes her a little. This is a tricky journey Zellweger must make, and director Franklin must share the credit for helping her through it.

Hurt is beginning to become somewhat stagnant in his characterizations of late. His George is phoned in, as was his John Robinson in last spring's Lost In Space. But he is talented enough to make it plausible even in the absence of energy, and he has a few moments. And Tom Everett Scott (Dead Man On Campus, An American Werewolf In Paris) also turns in a nice supporting performance as Ellen's brother Brian.

One True Thing is a tear-jerker, no doubt. But with this script and this calibre of actors, its quality shows through. And Streep's performance will probably secure her another Oscar nomination. ****½

Copyright 1998 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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