Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Streep at 60: Family Time With The River Wild

Streep at 60 continued...

After seizing the cinema like a born legend in the 70s, scaling the heights of drama in the 80s and spoofing herself in the early 90s, what was there left for Meryl Streep to do?

<-- Streep and her now grown daughters Louisa, Grace and Mamie in 2006

The fourth and least impressive act of Streep's career has no obvious narrative: How does one connect the time frame or the movies which began with the critically shunned period epic The House of The Spirits (1993), stretched through a series of hit and miss dramas and ended with a two year absence from the screens but for her disembodied voice in A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001)? Let's call this fourth act "Family Time".

Streep's only son, the musician Henry Wolfe, was born in 1979. Every few years afterwards she and Don Gummer had baby girls and their last, Louisa, was but a bun in Meryl's oven when the Oscars celebrating Streep's Postcard From the Edge performace rolled around. With four young kids at home during the '90s, Streep's attention were obviously divided. Happily for her fans, Streep must enjoy working, as she kept squeezing movies in. But The Bridges of Madison County (1995) was the only film to strike with the kind of critical and cultural force that Streep films had previously enjoyed.

I've never known quite what to make of what may well be the most atypical movie in her filmography, Curtis Hanson's The River Wild (1994). I don't think it works but it tries.

Streep sweats her way through a new genre

Streep plays Gail Hartman, a teacher at a school for the deaf who was a river guide in her youth. She takes her young son Roarke (Joseph Mazzello) on a white water rafting trip for his birthday. Her husband Tom (David Strathairn) tags along but things don't go as planned. Something is definitely not right with two fellow explorers Wade (Kevin Bacon) and Terry (John C Reilly) they meet along the way. The River Wild is a thriller/adventure but it's also a family romance of sorts about a mother, father and son falling back in love with each other. Despite its threatening plot, Wade being a killer with eyes for Gail, The River Wild is safe for families. It's admirably much less violent than an episode of most any TV procedural.

The River Wild is nice to look at with its wide wide screen, handsome cast and outdoors setting but it might be too nice. Everything about it seems to cry out "I mean well. Like me!" No, no. That's too strong a description. There's no crying out, which would be too aggressive for this mellow fellow. He (Mr. Wild) seems to walk sideways towards you, indecisively. Finally he works up the courage to politely tap you on the shoulder. "Excuse me. I don't mean to bother you but might you enjoy me? Give me a try. I'm physically fit. I'm outdoorsy!" One might say the film should be retitled The Stream Meek or maybe The Creek Distracting. While highly watchable, it's never much more or less.

To be frank, the movie could stand to be a little ruder.

Were one to anthropomorphize the movie, it might walk and talk exactly like Tom Hartman and look exactly like Tom's vessell David Strathairn who is wonderfully attractive but always in an everyman way. Tom Hartman can find his inner athlete/hero when he needs him (the film neatly, too neatly, lets both husband and wife be the hero) but at heart he's more of a 'sit back and observe' guy. Even when his wife is with strangers getting flirty, he's reluctant to get dirty.

The River Wild
would work a lot better as a thrilling adventure if it tried to channel Wade instead. He happens to have Kevin Bacon's face instead, improbably attractive but also believably sinister, rather like Mother Nature herself come to think of it. The movie almost ridesto the dangerous rapids it needs to live in a couple of times, particularly in regards to the obvious sexual tension between Wade and Gail. Mostly, however, it's content to glide through still waters. I don't mean to say that there should be more violence (I hate the gratuitous shooting of nice guy park ranger Benjamin Bratt, looking so young!) but that the filmmaking ought to be feel alert with the fear of it, especially in regards to the natural violence which the title promises.

There's a scene early in the film where Gail complains to her mother about her rocky marriage. Streep squeezes her hands together in frustration
I'm sick of the whole -- everything has become unbelievably hard.
Streep could just as well be talking about the difficulties a superb actor might face when trying to complicating a very ordinary character for the screen. And here, at last, is my principle reservation; I think Streep is the wrong actor for the movie.

I admire her efforts within, especially in her scenes with Strathairn (a Silkwood alum!) where she allows for intriguing reads as to what she does and doesn't still feel for her husband of many years. Elsewhere, particularly towards the climax, when logical though must depart and pure emotions take over, she is less ambiguous but also much less compelling. I can't help but think that what the movie needed was a more primal less controlled actor at its center. Kate Winslet was the wrong age of course but she's the right example, tonally. She isn't Streep's technical equal but her emotional force can be elemental and I think the movie needs super charged direct feeling, rather than nuanced emotional beat. Perhaps Jessica Lange? The River Wild has a simplistic story and predictable beats. It needs a thunderstorm actress rather than a complicated storm front.

For all that I think Meryl was the wrong choice for The River Wild, it's fun to see her looking so different: sunny, blonde, next door neighbor pretty or, perhaps, so much like herself. The sight of Meryl Streep looking just like Meryl Streep is a fairly uncommon occurence in the bulk of her filmography. Even if she's not inherently what the movie needed, she's still definitely able. She's still...

...[Translated from American Sign Language] "The Greatest".

Next: The 1995 and 1998 Oscar races and definitely a look back at 1999's Music of the Heart, which happens to be the only Oscar-nominated Streep performance that I didn't see in initial release (apart from those before my moviegoing time, that is) and have still not seen. Stay tuned.


Jeff said...

Another great Meryl article, even though I like this movie a whole lot more than you did. I admire you for having the strength to be true to yourself - I can't be unbiased when it comes to Streep - I think everything she does is perfection. I know I'm incorrect, but I'm hopelessly lost.

Wanted to point out a small error - nothing big. Streep actually did not attend the Oscars the year she was nominated for Postcards due to her pregnancy. Which totally broke my heart, because I thought there was a small, minute chance she might actually be coerced into singing I'm Checkin' Out for the broadcast. Deep down I knew it would never happen but one can dream...

Alex said...

After looking into awardage for the film, I was surprised to see the attention it got. I wonder how many performances have been nominated by both the Gold Globes and SAG Awards, but missed an Oscar nomination.

Alex said...

Okay, now I feel really stupid, because after a little snooping on IMDB, I found that 4 performances from 1994 alone were nom'd by the Globes and SAG, but missed Oscar.

Meryl Streep (The River Wild)
Robin Wright (Forrest Gump)
Jamie Lee Curtis (True Lies)
John Turturro (Quiz Show)

adam k. said...

Sigourney Weaver would've been a good, if utterly predictable, choice.

Susan Sarandon would've been interesting.

But I like that Meryl did something so atypical. This is obviously not her type of movie, but I think that's part of the charm of her performance (and also why she did it, I'm sure).

John T said...

It seems odd that in a year such as 1994, which is considered one of the true low points of the Best Actress category, that their favorite lady didn't score a nod when the Globes and SAG Awards got to her.


Jeff -- thanks for the point. 1990 is really foggy for me because i watched the ceremony in Norway at like 3 AM or something. it was so strange.

Adam K -- i like that she went atypical too. But i just don't think the movie works exactly.

John T -- the sad part, as always, is that there was not a shortage of good performance in 1994. They just weren't as typically Oscary. So their lineup was so weird.

Jason H. said...

I have to warn you, Music of the Heart is actually my least favorite Streep performance that I've seen. It's way too overacted and melodramatic.

/3rtfu11 said...

Nice to know she didn’t show to the ’91 Oscars due to pregnancy. For some cynical reason I just assumed she was tired of faking happiness for other women winning in her category.

Sigourney Weaver should’ve been a contender in ’94.

NicksFlickPicks said...

Well, I love Music of the Heart and am thrilled you'll finally be seeing it. Gobbled up this piece on River Wild, which I like more than you do, I think. So glad Streep @ 60 is back!

kent said...

THE RIVER WILD is extremely watchable and probably nothing more. it frequently plays on cable tv and find myself watching it, even though i'm not the least bit interested in it.

meryl sure knows how to get my attention in a film ;)

Thomas said...

Love this movie.

Scared me silly when I was quite young. I was around the same age as the boy, so I too thought Wade was quite cool until...

This is probably the movie that taught me about stranger danger.

KTibbs617 said...

I love that you call this segment "Family Time" - when spoke about doing this movie La Streep talked about how she did to to prove to herself and her kids (especially her daughters) that she could be fearless. So it's quite fitting.

Watchable is the most accurate word for this - and I am, most definitely a "Streeper". I mean, everyone is good, but the connection isn't there. I tend to forget that it exists in her filmography, but am not disappointed that it's there.

Peggy Sue said...

Saw it long ago and I don't think I'll revisited it anytime soon.

I believe Meryl was miscast here. Thank God Francesca appeared in her way and things went back to normal in her career. Very few actors can play all kind of roles and Meryl doesn't work in the "physical" ones (and that includes all the jumping in Mamma Mia!). This is the kind of role that Weaver or Turner would have mastered with their eyes shut.

Yes. That year was probably the weakest ever at the Oscar. Best performances I remember were way too indie to be recognized.

PS Can't wait for your "One True Thing" piece. Includes one of my Streep favorite scenes ever!!!

lylee2 said...

I had some vague interest in seeing this movie when it came out (was that already 15 years ago? sheesh), but never did. Your post just rekindled that interest. Plus, now I know who David Straithairn is.


oh Peggy Sue. I'm not actually doing a One True Thing article... just hte Oscar race... but share your favorite scene then please (I can't do all the films. sorry. if i make this a book i will do each film and expand the films I did cover.)

MRRIPLEY said...

1994 i'm fine with foster in nell as she was my winner that year and lange for a nomination sort of but where are

sigourney weaver
melanie lynskey
crissy rock
julianne moore
juliette lewis lewis
meg ryan
kate winslet

as for supporting actress i can live with thurman and wiest is my winner for her definitive diva but tilly grates,harris has 1 good scene and 1 v good oscar clip but in most of the film says nothing and mirren is just okay.

what about

brooke smith
robin wright
jamie lee curtis
kirsten dunst
sally field
tina majorino
sarah pierce
kristin scott thoams
roma maffia

Dominik said...

Since you ask under your “comment du jour” what we think about La Streep’s “Family Time Chapter” – and, well, this chapter is actually the time when I started watching movies consciously (mostly on TV especially Pay TV though), plus Meryl Streep was immediately one of my absolute favourites, plus one of my few favourites from that time that still are today, always were and always will be. (On the contrary, there are ppl I loved back then and don’t like too much now, Tom Hanks, Nicolas Cage and Sandra Bullock come to mind immediately.) So I felt it was almost my duty to try and bring myself back to that old times, and comment on it.

First Meryl movie I saw was “Defending your Life”. Can’t say anything about it now, but recognized her when I saw “Death Becomes Her” and *llovved* it! Then I saw “She-Devil”, and then “House of the Spirits”. It was one of my first rather long, grave and seemingly sophisticated movie experiences, and it impressed me, I liked it, I felt good about liking it. Next was probably “The River Wild”, which I enjoyed as a thriller, and a pretty good movie, but nothing I had to see again and again. Then I started wanting to learn where Streep came from, saw “Kramer vs. Kramer”, liked it very much, saw “Still of the Night” and “Silkwood” and appreciated them as good suspence and good drama respectively, saw “Heartburn” and “Cry in the Dark” and respected them as depressing but still good drama, and haunting and good yet kind of strange drama respectively. Then I saw “Bridges of Madison County”, very good film, very good acting, but nothing I had to see again, because kind of too long, heavy-hearted and slow-paced for me.

Then I saw “Postcard from the Edge” which I don’t recall finding more than quite good, “Marvin’s Room” and “Before and After”, both good but nothing too special. Years later “Lemony Snicket” – come to think of it only one of Meryl 50+ I’ve ever seen – , “Holocaust” and rather recently I finally watched “Sophie’s Choice”.

Conclusion: Strangely, I personally, first got to know and love Meryl Streep as a comedic actress. Then I learned that before she ever set foot into comedy, she has been a respected drama actress for 10+ years, and seemed like someone who would never lean toward and succeed in comedy. I explored that period of her, appreciated it, and appreciated how great it was that she finally tried and succeeded in comedy. What you refer to as her “Family Time Chapter” felt to me mostly like being mainly being the drama actress she was in the 80s, and occasionally doing other things than that now that everybody knows she can do it. Probably all in all in less interesting movies though.

I do not long too much to see any of her post 2000 movies though for some reason. Maybe “Adaptation”, maybe “The Devil Wears Prada”, maybe “Doubt”.

Btw David Strathairn is always quite decent - and never your typical big macho man!

Clarence said...

Music of the Heart was very family-friendly :) I saw it recently and I thought Meryl was fabulous! I hope you like it and I can't wait for your write up on it :)

Payday loans said...

Wow, one of the best read posts so far.


DOMINIK -- it seems strange to me that you got to know her as a comic actress, loved her but haven't been watching the newer films. Why not?

She is AMAZING in both Devil Wears Prada and Adaptation. Two of her all time best performances, I'd say. I'll have to do a top ten list when Streep at 60 ends.

I like that Streep inspires people to search the back catalog. I wish that would happne more often.

CLARENCE -- i barely know anything about it... except that i didn't see it. ha ha. but interesting that it's another family safe movie. because her early stuff was quite mature audiences only. Not unsafe for kids always but nothing a kid would want to watch. Definitely for the grownups.