Meryl Streep, remarkable as always, enters this too-tidy tearjerker on a welcome comie note. Dressed as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, complete with ruby slippers, Streep’s homemaker, Kate Gulden, is throwing a literary costume party for her professor husband, George (William Hurt). George, a pig — along with most of the males in this film of Anna Quindlen’s 1994 novel — treats Kate with benign contempt. So does Daddy’s girl Ellen (Renee Zellweger), visiting the burbs from her job as a Manhattan journalist (Quindlen was once a New York Times columnist), Dad and daughter take mom for granted.
Not for long. When Kate is diagnosed with terminal cancer, George orders Ellen to leave her job and move home to care for her; the big man on campus can’t take time off from quoting himself and boffing coeds. Ellen learns much about Kate and herself during her time as a caretaker, and these scenes — vividly realized — ring truer than anything else in the film (Quindlen left college for a year to care for her dying mother).
Streep and Zellweger nail every laugh and tear as Ellen wakes up to the crimes perpetrated on Kate in the name of feeding the mouths of ungrateful children and the ego of an unfaithful husband. But then Karen Croner’s script, following the novel, pours on the contrivances, including charges of a mercy killing, Even director Carl Franklin, an artful purveyor of sterner stuff in One False Move and Devil in a Blue Dress, can’t prevent One True Thing from descending into chick-movie hell.