Wednesday, December 28, 2016

R.I.P. Carrie Fisher: Postcards From The Edge Had So Much Potential!

The Good: Good performances, Some wonderful lines (both funny and dramatic), Good direction
The Bad: Glosses over much of the complexity of recovery and narcissism
The Basics: The moments of insight and wit make Postcards From The Edge a worthwhile film to watch, even if it is not nearly as complex in its resolution as the set-up indicates it might be.

When news broke that actress Carrie Fisher had suffered a heart attack on December 23, my heart sunk. 2016 has been a brutal year for deaths of beloved celebrities, writers, musical artists, and actors and while I joined my voice to wish for the best for Carrie Fisher and her speedy recovery, I had no reason to believe that 2016 would alter its momentum and Fisher would recover from her good health. So, when I awoke yesterday to the news that Fisher had died, I was very sad, but not surprised. The days between the two major news stories gave me time to consider what I would write as a tribute to Carrie Fisher.

Like most people, my first and enduring encounter with Carrie Fisher came from her iconic portrayal of the strong-willed Princess Leia Organa in the Star Wars Saga (reviewed here!). Fisher also delivers brilliantly the lines that help create my favorite moment in When Harry Met Sally . . . (reviewed here!) and that got me thinking about how much I came to enjoy watching interviews with Fisher over the years for her candid nature and wry wit. So, when Fisher was hospitalized, it occurred to me that the greatest tribute to Carrie Fisher I could provide would be in reviewing something new (to me) that illustrated Fisher's humor, honesty, and creative skill. For that, I decided it was time to watch Postcards From The Edge.

Postcards From The Edge was released cinematically when I was a teenager, shortly after I had discovered and become obsessed with Star Trek and was fully immersed in that culture. Ironically, a film that addressed in a straightforward manner mental illness probably would have served me better at that time in my life, but Carrie Fisher's cinematic adaptation of her own novel on the subject of substance abuse and living in the shadow of parental pressures is worthwhile and smart. This review is of Postcards From The Edge, which Fisher loosely based upon some of her own life experiences; while some might belabor making the connections between the art and the reality, I am opting for a pure review of the film as it stands on its own.

Actress Suzanne Vale is working on the set of a film, where she is having a rough time of getting through her lines because she is high and the director she is working with tries to avoid cuts in his shots. Shortly thereafter, Vale is unresponsive in bed with Jack Faulkner, who rushes her to the hospital. After her stomach is pumped and she regains consciousness, Vale has to confront her drug abuse. Her celebrity mother comes to visit her in rehab, whose narcissistic tendencies make it difficult for Suzanne to confront her issues. Coming out of rehab, Vale discovers that it is hard for her to get work again because of her history with drugs.

Vale is given the chance to act again if she stays with "a responsible party" during the shoot. Drug tested on the set, Vale is forced to live under her mother's roof where she is subjected to her mother's expectations and pressures. Doris (Vale's mother), puts Suzanne on display and pressures her to perform publicly at a party she throws for her daughter and it becomes clear that Doris is trying to remain relevant and active through Suzanne. Returning to the set the next day, Vale gets a lot of notes on her performance and overhears people talking about her physique, which make it tough for her to give a good performance. After her second day of work, she runs into Faulkner, who starts to pursue her. When Faulkner visits Vale's home, Doris hits on him, but Vale willingly gets into a relationship with him. But, when she learns that Faulkner is sleeping around and she tires of her mother's drinking around her, Vale begins to fight for her own identity and stand up for her own hopes and dreams.

Postcards From The Edge is tough to discuss without some references to Carrie Fisher because Meryl Streep's portrayal of Suzanne Vale so perfectly captures some of the cadences of Carrie Fisher as to make it painfully obvious that the character, or Streep's performance, is based upon her. Streep adapts a speech pattern virtually identical to Carrie Fisher's in many of Vale's most potent deliveries of irony and exasperation. Streep makes Vale accessible and interesting, even as viewers become more and more frustrated with the environment she is in and the people who surround her.

When Vale starts to realize that Doris is her "x-factor" that brings her the stress that begins to make her tempted to use drugs and alcohol, Streep is able to break out and make Vale seem vital in a way that the first half of the movie does not. When Vale asserts herself, Postcards From The Edge starts to take on a richness and level of intrigue that turns the uncomfortable comedy into a potent drama. Streep succeeds more as Vale when she can be heard - there are a number of scenes where she and Shirley MacLaine talk over one another - and Postcards From The Edge works best when it is focused on her.

It is not long into Postcards From The Edge that it becomes obvious that Suzanne Vale is struggling under the yolk of pressure and expectations from her narcissistic mother, Doris. Doris hijacks the party thrown in Suzanne's honor and flirts with Faulkner in a troubling way. Postcards From The Edge does an excellent job of creating a narcissistic character in the form of Doris Mann, but glosses over the complexity of confronting and surviving toxic people in order to deliver a "feel good" ending.

Postcards From The Edge does a rare thing in confronting familial alcoholism and substance abuse and creates a vivid portrait of a horrible narcissist . . . but to get the film into a hundred minute run time and be easily classifiable, the movie creates a situation that is complex and realistic, but then resolves it remarkably simplistically. That makes Postcards From The Edge a bit less satisfying than it ought to be, especially given how good all of the performances are and how decent the characters are when they are allowed to breathe and develop.

Perhaps that is the most fitting epitaph for Carrie Fisher, who railed against having to look a specific way in order to appear in the newest Star Wars films; she worked in an industry that values style over substance and Fisher had a mind for complexity and realism where consumers buy into flash and simplicity. The sad truth is that Carrie Fisher might well have been better as a writer and human being than she was ever allowed to be as a performer and she (and her audience) deserved better.

For other 2016 tribute reviews, please check out my reviews of:
Blackstar - David Bowie
Mother's Day - Garry Marshall
Strangers - Merle Haggard
Firefly Soundtrack - Ron Glass


For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2016 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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