In "Postcards From the Edge," Mike Nichols's movie version of Carrie Fisher's autobiographical novel, Meryl Streep gives the most fully articulated comic performance of her career, the one she's always hinted at and made us hope for.
There have always been the sheet-lightning flickers of a great comedian in Streep's acting. Even in "Sophie's Choice," her fractured English had slapstick inflections. But in the past, the droll comic always gave way to the weepy martyr, trading in her wiseacre grin for tragic frown lines. Impressive as many of her performances may have been, what she wanted most, it seemed, was to moisten her cheeks, rim red her eyes and collapse into a puddle. In "Postcards," she's turned her lightning rod away from lofty suffering.
As Suzanne Vale, the actress daughter of Doris Mann (Shirley MacLaine), an overbearing show-business mother who's a Hollywood legend from an earlier era, she flashes her steely wit like a saber. Suzanne may be one of the walking wounded, but she's not defenseless. Her way of interacting with the world is to tweak it, deride it, get it before it gets her, and her quips are like hypodermics, sneaky and deadly. Beneath the self-deprecating sarcasm runs a river of lye.
Having grown up in the shadow of her star mother, pureed in the celebrity blender, she's a maelstrom of raging insecurities, a self-dramatizing smart-girl princess, spoiled by a life of privilege but too full of resentment and self-loathing to enjoy her advantages. Soon after the beginning of the film, Suzanne is rushed to the hospital, nearly dead from a gargantuan narcotic cocktail. The drugs don't seem to blunt her comic edge. As she's splayed out on a stretcher, a doctor tells her that they're going to have to pump her stomach, and she cracks, "Do I have to be there?" Half-dead, she's still dropping cherry bombs into the toilets.
This first section, during which Suzanne goes through rehab and struggles to pull her career back together, is the movie's best, primarily because Nichols is so focused on Streep. In fact, almost nothing else seems to matter to him. It doesn't take a genius of a director to know how compelling Streep can be as a camera subject, and after three films together -- they collaborated on "Silkwood" and "Heartburn" -- the two have developed a cozy rapport. But while Nichols is servicing his star, he lets the other areas of the film go slack. Fisher's novel isn't strong on story; it's more a collection of comic fragments -- oddball dispatches from the movie wars -- than a real novel. And Nichols can't compensate; all he can do is hope that his star will pull him through, and that audiences are laughing hard enough that they won't mind the wobbling narrative.
To a large extent, his hopes are realized. Whatever her weaknesses as a writer, Fisher -- who adapted her novel for the screen -- has an indisputable gift for bristling one-liners. It's funny, in fact, that Streep has played Nora Ephron (in "Heartburn"), because more than anything else, Fisher is an Ephron wannabe. In a sense the actress is playing Ephron again.
Streep is at her best when she's dressed as a cop on the set of her new movie, enduring the ignominies of being an actress -- a situation made worse by everyone's knowledge of her drug adventures. She choreographs Fisher's lines brilliantly, slipping in odd pauses and breathy hesitations that take us inside Suzanne's spinning head.
Nichols is finely attuned to the natural surreality of a movie set, but when he moves away from the show-biz satire and concentrates on the mother-daughter relationship, the movie falters. Streep and MacLaine are neatly paired; like their characters, they're from different Hollywood generations, and it's impossible to see how they could do anything but bicker. But only in the scene with Suzanne's agent (played with Gucci virtuosity by Gary Morton) do their battles score comic points.
When mother and daughter are together, Suzanne rolls her eyes back in her head like an embarrassed teenager. She thinks her mother doesn't listen to her, and she's right. But Nichols can't seem to do anything with their scenes together, and their relationship seems over-familiar, the stuff of too many mother-daughter melodramas.
He plunges in, though, as if the material were cradle-fresh. In one sequence he has Suzanne, at her mother's insistence, sing a number at a party -- she's more gifted, we're told, as a singer than as an actress -- and the number she chooses is "You Don't Know Me." And if that weren't blatant enough, he has Doris follow it with a show-stopping rendition of Sondheim's "I'm Still Here." Both numbers are stunning. Streep's voice is richer and more soulful than you might expect, and MacLaine's brassy vulgarity is invigorating, but the choice of songs is too self-knowing; you feel as if Nichols were flashing his themes at us in semaphore.
MacLaine isn't bad in the film; for the most part, Nichols keeps her in check, but you do feel she wants much too badly for us to admire the old broad. The real problem is that the actresses can't invest their relationship with any reality; we never once feel as if anything were at stake in their struggles to come to terms with each other.
Suzanne's encounters with a conquest-obsessed playboy (played by Dennis Quaid) seem ever more gratuitous; they're movie extender. Gene Hackman fares better in his small role as fatherly film director who at first bawls Suzanne out for trashing his movie, then offers her another role.
The movie turns maudlin in the end, but still, nothing matters except the jokes. And Streep. She skates through the picture, unscathed by its lapses, glorying in her chance to strut her comic stuff. This alone is cause for celebration. Tragedy's loss is comedy's gain.
Postcards From the Edge, at area theaters, is rated R and contains some scenes of sexuality and drug use.