Meryl Streep has finally done it! In Postcards From the Edge, the mistress of quick-study accents takes a break from virtuosity and gives a warm, funny, loosey-goosey performance. For the first time in years, she lives a role instead of ”acting” it — and in doing so, she becomes more of an actress than ever.
Suzanne Vale (Streep), the heroine of Carrie Fisher’s wisecracking 1987 novel, might be described as a happy woman with nothing but problems. She’s a well-known Hollywood actress who has never quite become a star, and that’s a fairly apt metaphor for the way she experiences her own life. Postcards From the Edge follows Suzanne over the few months in which she emerges from a drug-rehab clinic and moves in with her loving but impossibly self-centered mother (Shirley MacLaine), a former Hollywood actress who was a big star.
Suzanne goes to work on a schlocky new movie and dates a producer (Dennis Quaid) who’s a lying dog. On the set, where everyone knows she’s a recovering addict, she endures flurries of gossipy criticism: She’s too fat! She doesn’t look like she’s enjoying her work! At the same time, the majority of her energy is spent fighting off the temptation to do more drugs (mostly, she just scarfs a lot of corn chips).
Carrie Fisher’s one-liners are free of the brassy, New York-style clatter that typifies the work of Neil Simon and, to a lesser extent, Nora Ephron. Suzanne, a bundle of nerves held together by wit, is a sharp-tongued neurotic, Southern California division. Fisher did the screenplay adaptation herself (even though most of the story isn’t actually taken from the book), and there’s an enticing springiness to her writing. The jokes don’t jump out at you; they’re just fluky, spontaneous remarks prompted by the way Suzanne sees the world.
Suzanne is meant to be an overgrown adolescent feeding off her own anxieties, and Streep gives her a comic radiance. She makes the character’s flutteriness at once poignant and immensely attractive, creating a new screen type: a soulful ditz. Suzanne experiences everything as happening to her, mostly because the real drama is the one that’s constantly unfolding in her head.
The scenes in which she acts in an el-cheapo chase comedy capture the workaday absurdity of Hollywood moviemaking, the ho-hum mesh of illusion and reality. And Streep and MacLaine make a touching pair of embattled misfits. Postcards From the Edge is, in many ways, a frothier (and subtler) Terms of Endearment. This one, too, is about the messiness of a mother-daughter bond, with MacLaine once again playing a well-meaning maternal pain in the neck. But Postcards isn’t a water-logged soaper like Terms. We don’t have to wait until the final hug to see that, shucks, these two characters really love each other. MacLaine’s Doris, a high-spirited egomaniac, is also an alcoholic — she has an addictive personality, just like Suzanne’s. Where the mother denies her flaws, the daughter revels in hers. In a sense, there’s no difference: They’re both actresses to the core.
The movie is a comedy of manners about their contrasting styles of melodramatic narcissism. MacLaine doesn’t overplay the domineering gorgon this time. Her Doris has a true movie star’s grace, and she’s fun, especially when she’s belting out show tunes with the panache that makes her a drag-queen idol. There’s a slightness to Postcards From the Edge, and a little too much satirical self-help jargon (the story is all about how Suzanne learns to like herself). But the movie captures — and celebrates — how easy it is to turn your problems into show biz.