DIRECTED BY

Mike Nichols

 

STARRING

Meryl Streep

Shirley MacLaine

Dennis Quaid

Gene Hackman

Annette Bening

Richard Dreyfuss

Rob Reiner

 

RATED

R

 

RELEASED IN

1990

 

RUNNING TIME

1 Hr., 41 Mins.

Postcards from the Edge November 21, 2019  

ostcards from the Edge (1990) soars because Meryl Streep and Shirley MacLaine are so engaging in it. Elsewhere, the movie is largely at the least good. The screenwriting by Carrie Fisher (with uncredited adjustments made by the director of the film, Mike Nichols) skis nimbly around tones but for the most part is very funny, in a life-is-comedy sense. And the feature, a basically plotless affair,

Meryl Streep and Shirley MacLaine in 1990's "Postcards from the Edge."

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has a nice lived-in quality to it. Still, it has some shortcomings. As an addiction movie — which it’s definitely supposed to be — Postcards from the Edge is partial to changing or (mostly) glossing over the subject when things are just about to get really rough. And as a mother-daughter dramedy it’s full of gusto to the point that even when it's being revealing and/or rawly vulnerable, the naked truths are more played for laughs than I think they should be. Even the finer details seem a hair broad-stroked. But Streep and MacLaine — who are the film's protagonists — persuade us a lot of the time to overlook the movie's deficiencies. 

 

Postcards from the Edge is based on a 1986 book by Fisher. By now, the novel has become almost folkloric when on the subject of celebrity parent-kid duos. Though it’s fictional, the novel is in large part based on the relationship between Fisher and her mother, Debbie Reynolds, so you’re almost pressed to wonder which parts have the most truth baked into them. I haven’t read the book, but one can assume, since Fisher adapted it for the movie, that the film closely adheres to its source material’s revelations, or whatever one might call them when the work in question is labeled semi-autobiographical and when the names of the characters are not the same as their real-life counterparts.

 

Postcards from the Edge stars Streep as Suzanne Vale, Fisher’s stand-in. It’s a cliché to proclaim during one’s dog days that someone’s seen better ones, but this is a pretty solid observation to let out around Suzanne. As the film opens — shortly after an afternoon’s work on a B-level movie production — the near-40-year-old, near-has-been actress Suzanne overdoses on pills, in the bed of a man (Dennis Quaid) she’d met the previous evening. We can presume these sorts of things have been going on for a while now: When Suzanne wakes up, her stomach freshly pumped, she’s in the bed of not a hospital but a rehab center. Her mother, Doris (MacLaine, Reynolds' stand-in) — an ostentatious entertainer whose career peaked during the studio-system era — put her there. 

 

Suzanne subsequently spends enough time in rehab to recover to the point of a confident release, but that doesn’t mean she can easily resume her film career. It was already flagging in the first place. Her well-documented drug problems have gotten her to a place where she’s making two-minute appearances in low-budgeted, 90-minute cop thrillers shot in less than a month. When Suzanne tries to begin work on a new project, studio bigwigs balk. Her agent is certain that, with her reputation, there’s no way her company’s insurance agency is going to want to cover her. That is unless she lives, temporarily, with someone “responsible” — in this case her mother. 

 

Such seems like a bad idea, not just to Suzanne (she’s always lived in her talkative and show-boating mother’s shadow) but to us. Movies in which dysfunctional family members have to learn to get along over the course of a runtime is, even by the standards of 1990, trite. But Postcards from the Edge is never overtly familiar in its approach, and if it is ever familiar it’s in part due to what might mirror our lives. Fisher has crafted a dramatic dynamic most people who have mothers who drive them crazy almost as much as they love them will recognize. Frequently in the movie do Suzanne and Doris go from having an argument where we wouldn’t be surprised if someone started swinging to, seconds later, being in awe of the other person.

Suzanne’s chamomile-tea Ray Charles cover — she’s simultaneously enthralled by her mother and upset that the latter’s clearly working, perhaps unconsciously, to upstage her. Has she somehow turned her daughter into an opening act? We can sense that, in this moment, Suzanne has started to wonder if this party is truly her mom’s way of showing support or if she's throwing this bash to be showered with maternalistic praises by friends and family and whichever media personnel are very likely among the attendees.

 

Suzanne and Doris’ relationship is arguably summarized by this limited series of events. It’s hard to tell when Doris is being authentic versus when she’s putting on an act; it’s also hard for Suzanne to distinguish her adoration and dislike of the woman who raised her. Postcards from the Edge is so often a terrific movie about parent-child relations that we wish it were more thoughtful of an addiction movie. It gets right the final conclusion that none of the ills we’ve seen have been totally solved, and that there’s a high potential for a relapse. These women (Doris herself is an alcoholic — something she won’t admit until the end of the film, when she gets a DUI) remind us that they’ve acclimated so much to their addictions that in recent years they’ve gotten used to functioning superficially well with them in pocket.

 

But the rehab scenes are too short and a smidgen glib. Fisher habitually tells (there are multiple instances in the film where Suzanne brings up how much she misses drugs) rather than shows — signaling, almost, that Fisher can smoothly bring to the screen some of the chatter surrounding unhealthy dependency but not so much what it genuinely feels like for her — I mean Suzanne — to be a recovering addict.

 

The film is imperfect and in ways that should be debilitating. Getting pretty wrong one of your primary thematic elements elsewhere could be the cinematic equivalent of jumping off the front of a cruise ship and hoping you don’t bonk your head before drowning. But the writing, which is by turns provocative and grave, and the hyper-competence of the performances, cushion the blows unintentionally caused by Fisher’s screenplay. With some hindsight Postcards from the Edge is akin to a punchily funny tell-all: Much has been let off the author’s chest, with wit to spare, but there’s a sense there’s also some smoke-and-mirror work going on we can't easily put a finger on. B+

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here’s a particularly exquisite sequence during Suzanne’s welcome-home party in which Suzanne and Doris take turns singing, with piano accompaniment, in front of their rapt guests, who’re probably used to getting this sort of makeshift show whenever a night at the Vale house is winding down. As Suzanne watches Doris sing — she does a showy Broadway number that seems like an H-bomb in comparison to