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Review: Postcards from the Edge (1990)

Postcards from the Edge (1990)

Directed by: Mike Nichols

Premise: Based on the novel by Carrie Fisher. A second generation actress (Meryl Streep) struggles with substance abuse. After coming out of rehab, she moves in with her mother (Shirley MacLaine) and attempts to get her career back on track.

What Works: Postcards from the Edge works within the template of the show business cautionary tale but finds a slightly different angle. Most of these kinds of films, like The Doors, Valley of the Dolls, and Boogie Nights, are rags-to-riches-to-rags stories of naïve characters who are chewed up and spit out by the mechanics of fame. Postcards from the Edge has a different vantage point. Suzanne, the central character of this movie played by Meryl Streep, is the daughter of a famous actress and she has grown up with access to the privileges and pitfalls of celebrity. As a result, Postcards from the Edge has a different view of Hollywood and the temptations of fame. In a lot of stories involving drug abuse, and especially those made in the “just say no” era, addiction is portrayed as a moral failing. Postcards from the Edge recognizes that substance abuse is a symptom of a deeper unrest in a person’s psyche. But the movie doesn’t explain away her personal responsibility either. Instead what emerges is a complex character who is living her life and trying to make her own way which necessarily involves mistakes. Suzanne is a more accessible starlet than is usually depicted in motion pictures. Although most of us cannot relate to growing up with a movie star mother, a lot of us do have complex relationships with our parents and the film taps into that experience and finds a lot of substance there. As the movie portrays it, Suzanne has to achieve some sort of peace with her mother, played by Shirley MacLaine. Both Streep and MacLaine are terrific in their roles and Carrie Fisher’s witty script allows them to be funny without cheapening the drama. As a show business movie, Postcards from the Edge also demythologizes Hollywood. As depicted here, life in a movie star home is not Sunset Boulevard and Postcards from the Edge portrays a workday on the movie set with an amusing banality that is the opposite of Singin’ in the Rain. The film is also about the specific experience of being a woman in the entertainment industry. Initially Suzanne and her mother’s dual careers are a source of conflict—the parent unconsciously sees her child as a competitor—but this later becomes a source of bonding. The film levels an intelligent critique at Hollywood while working the criticism seamlessly into the plot and characterization.

What Doesn’t: Postcards from the Edge was adapted from Carrie Fisher’s novel which is widely understood to be semi-autobiographical, meaning that it was inspired by the author’s life but is primarily a work of fiction. It’s a mistake to take Postcards from the Edge as Fisher’s confessional about her relationship with her mother. That said, Postcards from the Edge suffers from some of the same flaws often seen in biographical movies. It doesn’t have a clearly defined narrative through-line. Suzanne gets through rehab without too much struggle and does not appear to be at risk of falling off the wagon despite still working in Hollywood. The plotting also tends to be episodic. Events are self-contained and subplots like Suzanne’s romance with a smooth talker played by Dennis Quaid play out very quickly. The film comes to a soft conclusion. It doesn’t have obvious narrative goalposts that define the success or failure of the characters. Postcards from the Edge requires viewers to work a little bit harder to see the turns in plot and character than they may be accustomed to doing. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially since life rarely has those kinds of clearly defined moments.

DVD extras: Commentary track, production notes, and trailers.

Bottom Line: Postcards from the Edge is both a show business movie and a story of reconciliation between mother and daughter. The film has terrific performances by Meryl Streep and Shirley MacLaine and mixes drama and caustic humor in a way that achieves understated profundity.

Episode: #628 (January 1, 2017)