One True Thing's False Message

The culture of death is slowly becoming mainstream. An example is the quiet embrace of pro-suicide, pro-euthanasia attitudes in mass entertainment. Only a few movies or television shows choose this kind of material for their primary subject matter. More insidious are those productions whose dramatic focus is on other issues, but sneak in pro-death propaganda through the back door.

A case in point is One True Thing. Based on the best-selling novel by former New York Times columnist Anna Quindlen, One True Thing devotes most of its screen time to the twists and turns of a mother-daughter relationship. But the movie begins with the mother's death from a morphine overdose, and most of the story is told in flashbacks as the daughter is interrogated by the local district attorney.

Director Carl Franklin (Devil in a Blue Dress) and screenwriter Karen Croner (Cold Sassy Tree) tease the audience throughout the film about how the older woman died: Was it a mercy killing executed by either her husband or daughter? Or did she take her own life? The movie implies that all of these means of dying are morally acceptable, but none of the relevant issues are explored in any depth. Instead, the situation is used as a whodunit device to spice up an otherwise straightforward and slightly turgid melodrama.

The action is set in 1987 and 1988. Ellen Culden (Renee Zellweger) has had her attitudes about career and family formed by contemporary feminism. A Harvard graduate in her late 20s, she's a staff writer with a high-profile New York magazine. She defines herself by her professional success, and her personal relationships take second place to her ambition. Although she has a boyfriend she sees occasionally, it doesn't look like she'll be getting married anytime soon.

Her mother, Kate (Meryl Streep), is the stereotypical pre-feminist housewife. Her primary commitment is to her husband and children. She gets intense satisfaction out of making a home for her family. She's a good cook and a supportive wife and mother who's also active in local volunteer charity work.

Ellen, like many of her generation, has great contempt for her mother. “The one thing I never wanted to do was live my mother's life,” she proclaims. Yet Kate loves her daughter anyway and is proud of her professional accomplishments.

Ellen's father, George (William Hurt), is a professor of English at a campus in a small town about a day's train ride from New York. When Ellen returns home for his birthday, she learns Kate has cancer. Ellen's father asks her to move back to take care of her mother. Reluctantly, she agrees.

The filmmakers and novelist Quindlen analyze their subject from a 1990s feminist perspective. Professional women of Ellen's generation were instructed at elite universities like Harvard that they “could have it all,” meaning both a successful career and an emotionally rewarding family life. In recent years, some feminists have come to realize that this is unlikely, if not impossible, and the various trade-offs have been examined.

Ellen and Kate symbolize versions of the two different lifestyle choices available to women from the feminist point of view. As such, One True Thinghas an ideological purpose. It wants to help its female viewers see the strengths and weaknesses of both positions. For this reason, a full-time wife and mother like Kate is given more respect by the filmmakers than she would have been accorded 20 years ago. But even so, the movie can't resist indulging in a favorite feminist sport — male-bashing.

All the men in the film are weak and emotionally clueless. Both Ellen and Kate are depicted as strong individuals in different ways, and as Ellen becomes more accepting of her mother's lifestyle, her power as a woman is increased.

Ellen's father, from whom she got her writing talent and ambition, is self-centered, out of touch with his feelings, and a philanderer. Ellen's brother, Brian (Tom Everett Scott), flunks out of Harvard where she excelled, and he doesn't even have the courage to tell his parents of his failure. When compared to the women in the family, the Culden men are both losers.

But the movie's most harmful message is its suggestion that the willingness to commit suicide, or to assist a loved one in the act, is proof of psychological strength and maturity. Even though this point of view seems at times artificially grafted on to the mother-daughter melodrama, it overpowers the rest of the story, leaving one to speculate whether feminism and pro-death ideology aren't somehow inextricably intertwined.

Arts and Culture correspondent John Prizer writes from Washington.

One True Thing is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America.