Get out your handkerchiefs. Carl Franklin’s legitimately moving film about an ambitious young journalist who leaves her job as an investigative reporter to care for her dying mother will leave you sniffling.
In some scenes it’s hard to hear the dialogue over the muffled sobs in the audience. But Franklin (One False Move, Devil in a Blue Dress) resists wallowing in sentimentality. You’ll be crying honest tears.
Based on the 1995 novel by New York Times columnist Anna Quindlen, the film stars Meryl Streep an actress who can never disappoint as suburban homemaker Kate Gulden. Renee Zellweger, looking too young to be convincing as an investigative reporter for New York Magazine, plays her daughter.
The film opens as Ellen is heading home to the suburbs for her father’s (William Hurt) 55th surprise birthday party. It’s a costume party at which everyone dresses as their favorite literary character. At the Gulden household this means Mom is coming as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, while her friends come as Mary Poppins and Snow White. The schism between mother and daughter is immediately discernible. Here is Ellen Gulden self-consciously dressed all in black (Who are you? Sylvia Plath?), a wannabe sophisticate, ambitious career woman, and already a hard-edged cynic who rolls her eyes condescendingly at the life her mother has chosen. She sees her mother as a throwback to the days of Donna ed.
Unlike her daughter, selfless stay-at-home Kate is interminably cheerful a happy homemaker who can bake and decorate, minister to her friend’s physical and emotional ills, and literally light up the town square. More is more, she tells her daughter as they look at all the Christmas trees she has decorated.
Ellen’s worst nightmare is to turn out like Kate Gulden. She was never close to her mother growing up, and they are even more distant as adults.
While she finds her mother’s domesticity embarrassing, Ellen idolizes her father: the distinguished professor of American literature and National Book Award winner who is hard at work on his latest novel. Ellen is still seeking her father’s approval, hoping he’ll like her latest article. Instead of compliments, he can only remind her, that less is more and word choice has to be muscular.
When Kate is diagnosed with cancer, family dynamics inevitably shift. George Gulden asks his daughter to give up her plum job and move back home to take care of her mother because he has a book to finish and a department to run. Ellen reluctantly and resentfully complies. Moving home as an adult and seeing her parents from an adult’s perspective is a real eye-opener for Ellen.
As she becomes privy to family secrets, she begins to see her father for what he is a self-absorbed hack who, above all, wants his world to run smoothly. He makes feeble excuses for the many nights he comes home late, and, worst of all, cannot cope with his wife’s illness. Don’t you ever say that again! he snaps when Ellen tries to tell him her mother is getting worse.
Though she initially seems miscast, Zellweger grows into her role, becoming more believable and more likable as the dutiful daughter. By design, her character isn’t particularly attractive in the beginning of the film. Petulant and self-absorbed, she barely conceals her disdain for her mother and her group of community do-gooders, the Minnies (which sounds an awful lot like ninnies).
By living her mother’s life, however, Ellen gradually changes her view of the woman who has been a stranger to her all these years. She sees her mother as a caring friend who spends a day driving a depressed chum around town, singing along to old tapes to cheer her up. She sees her mother joyfully dress up along with the neighborhood kids at Halloween. She sees how her mother thanklessly keeps a household running, never challenging her neglectful husband’s transparent excuses.
After Ellen takes over the household tasks, she cries to her mother, How do you do this all day everyday in this house and no one notices? Doesn’t it drive you crazy?
But Kate has made her own concessions, choosing to find joy where she can. It’s so much easier to be happy, to love the things you have than to always be yearning, she chides her daughter while summing up her own life.
In ways, this is a predictable film. Reconciliation is imminent, but Franklin has a gift for exploring family dynamics and effectively relating the complexities of relationships. We see an ordinary mother who tries to hold her family together, motivated by her love for them, and a husband who genuinely loves his wife but can’t deal with the ugly truth of things.
He may come home late too often, but he also tenderly dances with his wife. When she’s too sick to go to their favorite restaurant, he brings the restaurant to her violinists and all. Hurt is looking more middle-aged, which serves him well in this role, though he doesn’t quite reach the level of his co-star. Sometimes he seems to be shutting out the audience just as his character shuts out his wife.
Streep is magnificent as an ordinary wife and mother facing her own death. However, her seemingly imperturbable character is almost too perfect. She hides her pain from the household in order to maintain a semblance of normalcy, until it becomes physically impossible. I wanted to cheer when she finally lashed out at her plight, throwing dishes and angrily crying that she is still the mother here. It’s one of the film’s most honest moments. Another one that resonates with particular realism comes when Kate, sitting on the bedroom floor surrounded by mementos, strips away her usual cheerfulness to speak honestly to her daughter.
Yes, this film deals with death and dying, but in the end, Ellen is actually very lucky. She gets a second chance to know her mother and her father to appreciate and love them not only as her parents, but as human beings. That kind of understanding is something not all of us are lucky enough to achieve.