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merylfest: SHE-DEVIL (1989)

Oh, the comedy subset of Meryl’s filmography. Oh, how I outwardly pretend her high-brow, sob-inducing dramatic performances are the pinnacle of her career and inwardly adore when she utilizes her fantastic comedic timing. I’ve got to say – when preparing to tackle this oft-maligned blip on Streep’s past work, I was a little, shall we say, nervous. I mean, her co-stars probably make for the most random trio of actors you could assemble for this silly little bit of move – Streep with Ed Begley Jr. and Roseanne Barr?? Yeah, not exactly the first grouping that comes to mind when you think of casting a successful comedic romp (though it sort of make sense considering Roseanne’s rising popularity at the time and Meryl’s incoming burst of funny-woman roles). In She-Devil, Streep plays Mary Fisher, over-the-top, breathy-voiced romance novelist and part-time husband stealer. Fisher lives in a giant Barbie’s Dream House wannabe and making a living peddling dirty books to housewives. The “she-devil” is unleashed, though, when Mary meets Bob (Begley, Jr.) at a party and steals him away from frumpy wife Rose (Barr).

The story ambles on as we follow Rose’s routes to vengeance against wandering-eyed Bob and floozy Mary to show them the error of their ways and to reinvent herself as a powerful, confident woman in the meantime. It’s by no means an excellent film, to be sure, but it’s at least an agreeable revenge comedy. Streep is typically well-timed in this, a far less becoming character than she’s used to. Mary is a bitch, plain and simple, and you find yourself rooting for the typically trashy Barr in this, a surprisingly sweet-natured performance. But it seems that Streep is rather well-suited to playing a comedic villain (see Death Becomes Her for evidence of that), and, though the pairing for Streep/Barr on a marquee is probably the most bizarre one in her career, the two of them play rather well off each other, representing two opposing sides of the womanhood spectrum – the beautiful brat versus the mumsy sweetheart.

Now, I can understand the ill will toward the flick. Streep has very clearly been better in countless other roles, and the writing is, for the most part, bordering on ludicrous, but it’s a pleasant mindless departure from the doom and gloom of her ’80s work. Mary and Rose are big, brash caricatures of the ladies they’re trying to represent, and, though this fact creates some problems with plotholes and inconsistency, the stars are endearing and doing rather well with the predominantly silly script they’re working with.

Meryl’s Performance: B
The Film: B-

merylfest: THE SIMPSONS (1994) and KING OF THE HILL (1999)

We’re taking a momentary sidestep from Meryl’s filmography to take a look at her work in FOX animated television series. Surprised? Yeah, Streep isn’t too cool to engage in some semi-lowbrow antics with America’s favorite dysfunctional family or even a band of redneck, slow-talking Texans. First, chronologically speaking, is her stint as hell-raising pastor’s daughter Jessica Lovejoy on The Simpsons. Perhaps the truly amazing quality of this episode of the wonderful series is that you really have to listen closely to notice that Streep is voicing the youngster who has entranced Bart into puppy love. As I always say, it’s her “ch” sound that gives her away. Jessica is great fun and a perfect math for Bart, as she shows the bad-boy where his limits lies. I mean, you know what they say about pastor’s kids… Though the episode ends with the two-faced kiddo being sent off to boarding school, Bart’s first love will always and forever be Meryl Streep.

And then in 1999, Streep was somehow talked into appearing on the latest critical and ratings darling from the FOX animated lineup, King of the Hill. Now, though I’d never actually seen an entire episode of the show until now, I’ve never really understood its appeal. For a Southern comedy with such praise heaped onto it, particularly in its early years, its surprisingly mundane and definitely hard to make through 20-odd minutes of. Streep’s character is the Cajun aunt of one of Hank Hill’s friends. The gang ventures to Louisiana when Hanks whens a contest from, what else, a beer company. Though its delightful to hear Streep rattle off some deep South French, she’s primarily pushed to the side. Her character gets even less screen-time than her three live-in widowed daughter and daughters-in-law (voiced by the Dixie Chicks, no less). So though she definitely brought some much-needed excitement to this intensely dull show, it truly wasn’t enough to engage this viewer.

The Simpsons, Episode 6.7: A-
Meryl’s Performance: A-

King of the Hill, Episode 4.6: D+
Meryl’s Performance: B-

merylfest: POSTCARDS FROM THE EDGE (1990)

Another entry in which I find myself in the early-90s stage of Meryl’s career in which she plays her less-honored but no-less-talent-filled comic self. Possibly one of the most well-regarded choices she made during this phase was as the drug-addicted diva actress Suzanne Vale, who, when forced to move back in with her aging actress superstar mother (played brilliantly with Debbie Reynolds-esque chutzpah by Shirley MacLaine), finds herself struggling to make her long-awaited big-screen comeback. Based on the semi-autobiographical book by the hilarious Carrie Fisher, Postcards from the Edge follows Suzanne through her unsuccessful attempts at regaining her screen presence, along with the occasional bouts in rehab. (Wow, this movie perhaps hasn’t entirely lost its touch with true Hollywood norms, eh?) And though Meryl’s character could easily have faltered into the entirely unlikable – she’s somewhat of a spoiled brat rich girl with reckless abandon when it comes to her health and well-being – her troubled actress is strangely down to earth. She has just enough girl-next-door regularity to pass as someone relatable.

The true greatness at play here, though, is Streep’s interactions with her on-screen mom, MacLaine. Shirley’s Doris Mann is a larger than life personality (most reminiscent, perhaps, of Debbie Reynolds’ stint on Will and Grace in the late-90s) who has a major following in the diva-loving, showbiz-addicted community. She’s a former big-screen beauty queen with a big voice and a sassy attitude to match. And Suzanne is completely the opposite – Meryl’s character is a subdued sort with a snarky attitude and a hesitancy when it comes to utilizing her actually rather good singing voice. But thank goodness she does – without it we wouldn’t have gotten the best scene in the movie (and probably one of Meryl’s superior singing scenes from her films, if not the best), “I’m Checkin’ Out,” a gutsy country number that Suzanne belts out like only a washed-up former drug addict could.

So likely thanks in most part to Fisher’s original and unique source material (have we ever really seen this side to show business and mother/daughter relationships before this film?), the films rests gently on the shoulders of these two talented ladies. Though Streep’s comic side is far less evident here than in movies such as Death Becomes Her or The Devil Wears Prada, she nevertheless elicits a few chuckles through her deadpan delivery of banter with her boozy, overbearing stage mom. This is a side we rarely see. It’s Meryl as a youthful, rebellious teenager sort – Suzanne never grew out of her dependency stage or her backtalking adolescence – and it’s a refreshing, if atypical, side to see.

Meryl’s Performance: B+
The Film: B+

merylfest: IT’S COMPLICATED (2009)

It’s yet again been a while since I’ve written an entry in my ongoing tribute to the great Meryl Streep, Merylfest, so I’d thought I’d take this opportunity to write up one of her three recent works in her banner 2009 year, It’s Complicated. What could’ve been a miss – seeing as though Nancy Meyers makes both Something’s Gotta Gives (woo-hoo!) and What Women Wants (bleh.) – ended up being a delightful romp and a great getaway for Streep amidst all of her prestige movies that she tends toward. And at least this particular break from the norm wasn’t quite as extremely opposite as the over-the-top ridiculousness that was Mamma Mia! Starring two very able, comedically speaking, co-stars in Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin, Streep gets to stretch her comedy legs (something I’ve always rooted for, personally) and showcase her ability to create fantastic chemistry. As Jane, the wealthy bakery owner and divorcee who’s fallen into somewhat of a romantic rut, she looks more stunning than ever – no easy feat for a 60-year-old woman – as she woos her two co-stars, from drunken ex-sex with former spouse Baldwin to baked goods and getting baked with new potential beau Martin.

Thanks to an above-average romantic comedy script and a more than able cast, Meryl is able to pull off her “woman of a certain age” romantic lead role. Her goofy chemistry with ex-husband Jake (played by Baldwin) has to rank up there with her buyable on-screen relationship with Clint Eastwood in Bridges of Madison County. The two are somewhat of a match made in romantic comedy heaven. It’s hard to say much about Streep’s performance beyond her comfort in her own skin and her finesse with the male characters around her. She’s delivering a truly adult performance in an adult comedy. Which is probably the most refreshing thing about Meyers’ tendency toward older actors – these lovebirds aren’t immature lonelyhearts. They’re well-worn, authentic grown-ups.

Luckily Streep isn’t alone in excelling in this environment. Baldwin is great fun as the less-than-perfect paramour of the two, and you hate to find yourself somewhat rooting for him over the sweet-natured, more well-meaning Martin. And though Streep and Baldwin’s children are perhaps a little too blonde and beautiful across the board (why do rich people in movies always have to be good-looking?), their soon-to-be son-in-law (played by secret weapon John Krasinski) often steals the show when it comes to the laughs.

Meryl’s Performance: B+
The Film: B+

merylfest: THE ANT BULLY (2006)

Such a fitting role for such a royal woman – in 2006’s (wow, she had a busy year!) The Ant Bully, Streep plays, of course, the Ant Queen. And she is literally larger than life – well at least larger than her entire colony combined, basically. Now it’s tough to take much into account with this performance. Not only was Streep not on screen for the duration, but she also has but two mini-scenes in which the Queen addresses the masses. Honestly, she’s a great choice for voice work. Though I get discouraged by the incessant “all-star voice cast” tendencies that run rampant in the last decade of animated films (what ever happened to the early-1990s Disney movies where they just chose actors who did great voice work, rather than the big names?), I must say that Streep’s voice is one worthy of drawn characters. From her vocal idiosyncrasies (ever notice she has a distinct way of saying the “ch” sound?) to her dignified aural presence (think the towering personas from Devil Wears Prada and Doubt), she’s an ideal candidate for the role of a graceful and dominant insect. And I mean that in the most flattering of ways.

So on to the critique, though we have little material to work with (just wait until the write-up of A.I.: Artificial Intelligence!). Meryl’s first scene is as the ant bully himself, the geeky Lucas, is presented to the colony council for crimes against nature. Of course Streep’s wise queen is all moral and good, and she suggests his punishment should be to live the life of an ant (one of those walk two moons in my moccasins situations). As far as the voice work in this film goes, Streep’s is top-notch. Julia Roberts also has a rather good voice for animated movies – it has a great cadence and not too much recognizability to be distracting.

As far as the movie itself goes, it’s no Pixar effort, but it’s certainly not as pop-culture-pandering as many DreamWorks Animation efforts. It’s not barrels of laughs either, but it’s fun and adorable enough to pass as a watchable flick. The premise may seem a bit tired, but the animation is stimulating and good-looking enough to maintain audience attention and awe. Some of the characters (including our “hero” Lucas and some of the supporting ants) are slightly underdeveloped, but Regina King and Bruce Campbell have terrific voices for this type of movie, so it sort of makes up for it. Plus, bonus points for using Animaniacs alum Rob Paulsen in a bit part as a goofy beetle.

Meryl’s Performance: B
The Film: B

merylfest: THE HOURS (2002)

I’ve been quite remiss of late in keeping up with my project started way back when of viewing every movie in the astounding filmography of Meryl Streep (that last post was on Doubt – that so long ago, does anyone even remember?). And after hitting up most of the major ones (see Sophie’s Choice and Devil Wears Prada) and dabbling in one surprising spam-comment-magnet (what do male enhancement products really have to with Mamma Mia!, hm?), we’re delving into some less-honored territory with The Hours. And to be frank, I’ve never understood the lack of love for Clarissa Vaughan, the stand-out in the twisty-turny history-bending ensemble piece. The Oscars opted for Nicole Kidman‘s Virginia Woolf (an admirable choice, to be sure) and virtually ignored Streep’s work perhaps out of sheer modernity. But Vaughan is hardly the most modern of lead female roles; she is, in fact, based on Woolf’s 1925 character Mrs. Dalloway.

From the first moments of editing genius in which Vaughan declares she will “by the flowers herself,” we’re hooked on her life’s hidden troubles (much like her version of Susan Orlean in Adaptation). We’re led to believe there is trouble on the home front as Vaughan’s lover Sally (played brilliantly and with surprising care by Allison Janney) returns home in the early morning. In fact, most of Vaughan’s well-being and self-image depends on her ability to throw a decent party, particularly the one for her friend, the suicidal AID-stricken poet (played with eerie calm by Ed Harris). At some point Clarissa has lost most of herself in favor of the easier route – that is, she’s reflected herself elsewhere – her daughter (played by Claire Danes), Sally, and her poet friend – as a means to avoid the truth that she’s unhappy.

Now, The Hours is the type of film that is easy to discuss at length, and it feels as though I’ve mentioned it several times in posts past. It’s easy to say it’s one of the most actorly of film showcases of the last 20 years. It’s no surprise, since the film was left in such able hands, as evident in the poster to the left. Though I would have to say the stand-out in the movie is Streep (this performance placed my top 50 of the decade if you may recall), Moore and Kidman are both brilliant in some of their, if not their absolute, best work. The movie is a downer, to be sure, but it’s a beautiful downer. There’s so much fine editing, costuming, and screenwriting at work here, it’s hard to be too depressed by the melancholy of it all.

Meryl’s Performance: A-
The Film: A-

merylfest: DOUBT (2008)

Continuing with the host of recent Streep efforts being featured here in Merylfest, I give you Doubt – a fairly exceptional stage-to-screen adaptation from John Patrick Shanley. Meryl plays Sister Aloysius Beauvier, the stone-cold head mistress of St. Nicholas School in 1964. The plot follows Sister Aloysius as she attempts to unearth the truth about Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his relationship with a young student. First thing’s first, I very much enjoyed this performance. It’s great to see Meryl as a tower of strength, and that head-to-head scene with Hoffman alone is bone-chilling. I understand that much of the scenes would probably be much more effective on stage, but Streep is believable as the staunch activist who’s in over her head.

I know that critics seemed to agree that the film was only okay, but I’ll be the first to admit that I rather enjoyed it – I’m fairly certain I’d place it on my top 10 of 2008. Now, the depth of praise the film received as far as accolades went was a little confusing. Oscar nominees Hoffman and Amy Adams both gave awfully by-the-book performances. Yes, I love Amy Adams as much as the next person, but you can’t tell me this was one of the five best supporting actress performances of the year. Rachel Getting Married alone can provide at least two viable alternatives. And even though the true scene stealer is Viola Davis, as the boy in question’s mother, she only has one scene to steal. So Sister Aloysius is left to impress throughout the duration.

From the scenes in which she clutches crucifixes dramatically to the ones in which she simply harshly disciplines students for their shenanigans, Streep’s nun is one of subtle depth. It’s awfully intriguing imagining what it was that formed this woman’s personality and psyche. Chalk that up to Shanley’s excellent character development, combined with Streep’s fierce tenacity in the character. So please, give Doubt a chance – it’s far better than you remember and it’s a very actorly showcase for Streep and Davis in particular.

Meryl’s Performance: A-
The Film: A-

merylfest: THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA (2006)

In one of the best (and most surprising) movies of 2006, Meryl delivered the performance of the latter half of her career as relentless and terrifying Miranda Priestley in The Devil Wears Prada. It’s the movie that ushered in Ms. Streep as a box office sensation for a new generation of moviegoers. And though this transition has yielded us such resulting products as Mamma Mia!, it’s also given us the success of both Julie & Julia and It’s Complicated, two rather delightful movies of 2009. But back to Prada. Streep’s Miranda is calm and collected in the eeriest of ways. She proves to be one of the best villains in recent memory with her slight facial tics that could take down an entire army. From the cerulean speech to the “oops, I saw you fighting with your husband” retaliation, Miranda is certainly the devil to Anne Hathaway‘s new personal hell.

But what makes Devil Wears Prada one of the best movies of its release year isn’t Meryl’s wicked performance alone, it’s the supporting turns from the snippy Emily Blunt and the cool-mannered Stanley Tucci. As, well, Emily, Blunt is the epitome of short-tempered, high-powered assistant. Whether bashing the style of her frumpier counterpart or groveling at Miranda’s feet at every chance, Emily is the type of evil sidekick you can’t help but root for. And Tucci’s work as the zinger-throwing fashion editor who takes Hathaway’s character Andrea under his wing is subtle at the right times (unlike some of his recently honored over-the-top work). But I digress – this is Streep’s show, and she makes it known at every opportunity.

It’s difficult to make a character recognizable by name, but somehow Streep manages it on occasion – Sophie Zawistowski, Karen Silkwood, and Miranda Priestley are all examples of possible future Scarlett O’Haras and Ilsa Lunds. Am I getting ahead of myself? Probably. But isn’t it intriguing to think of who the future iconic names from film will be in 20 or 30 years? Have we found a Don Corleone or an Annie Hall? It seems that one of the best places to look for these such characters has to be in our greatest living actress.

Meryl’s Performance: A
The Film: A-

merylfest: MAMMA MIA! (2008)

Perhaps best known as the scourge on an otherwise stellar career, there is much to say both good and bad (but mostly bad) about the outlandish, over-the-top movie musical Mamma Mia! Loaded with a soundtrack of Swedish pop music from the likes of supergroup ABBA, Ms. Streep finds herself singing and dancing, something that typically serves as pleasant surprise in her films. Though her vocals are rather good, it’s hard to transcend the ridiculous plot, which clearly has been haphazardly strung together through the lyrics of unrelated ABBA songs. But before I get ahead of myself and start discussing the quality of the movie itself, let’s first take a look at the performance within the mess. The best way to describe Streep’s Donna Sheridan, the former wild child whose daughter is desperately seeking her biological father from the crop of paramours her mother bedded through the years, is amiable. You can see the desperation on Streep’s face throughout the movie – she realizes it’s a disaster, but she’s giving every ounce of energy she’s got to attempt to rescue it.

Exhibit A – no other person in the cast seems to have been screened for vocal talent before shooting (except for maybe Christine Baranski), so Meryl manages to be the stand-out vocalist by default. Exhibit B – the whole randy fiftysomethings vibe is a little too wacky for words. While Meryl’s busy with dialogue about euphemistic “drilling” and what have you, her pals are busy desperately begging for love from strange men and hitting on youngsters that could be their grandchildren. Exhibit C – perhaps the biggest travesty, Streep is relegated to overalls for the former half of the flick. Oh, and then there’s the 60s/70s, platform-shoed getup she dons for her daughter’s bachelorette party. Honestly, if it weren’t for “The Winner Takes it All,” it’d be a complete waste of Streep’s talent.

As for the movie, aside from Streep and Amanda Seyfried (who’s at least enjoyable to watch for the most part), the duration amounts to a bunch of older gents and gals parading around like wild teenagers and warbling uncomfortably. If you want a true ABBA tribute movie, check out Muriel’s Wedding instead. I understand that it’s harmless fun, but there’s something to be said for at least trying to find actors with a modicum of vocal ability. I’m all for Meryl finding herself in musical films, just so long as the script is a lot more cohesive and a lot less hammy.

Meryl’s Performance: C+
The Film: C-

merylfest: FANTASTIC MR. FOX (2009)

As any reader of this blog knows, I’m a big proponent of any comedic stylings that Meryl Streep is willing to offer. In fact, I’m always the first to say that she should really do more of it (take a look at Death Becomes Her and Adaptation for more proof). And what little of the subset of comedy (animated voice acting) she’s done, I’ve been pretty satisfied with it. And here’s the first example of it that I’ve delved into here at Journalistic Skepticism – 2009’s quirky and sharply-written retro comedy Fantastic Mr. Fox. When I first heard about this adaptation, I was thrilled; Roald Dahl’s novels are so uniquely disturbing and absolutely magical at the same time, that they’re just begging for film adaptation. And much to my utter happiness, movies like Matilda, James and the Giant Peach, and The Witches each had their own uniquely original aesthetics and translated rather beautifully, if completely derangedly, to the big screen.

Now onto the individual Streep performance. Surrounded by drab and strangely beautiful “set design,” the stop motion visual genius that surrounds the character of Mrs. Fox sort of steals the show. Not to mention the silly side characters (namely Jason Schwartzman‘s Ash and Wally Wolodarsky‘s Kylie) that render Streep’s den mother fairly one-dimensional. So maybe you come for the Streep goodness, but you leave remembering everything but. Now don’t get me wrong, there probably is no more soothing and sigh-inducing voice in the biz (well, except for maybe the therapist-esque vocals of Morgan Freeman and Anthony Hopkins – I really think they missed their callings, there), and she does an admirable job with the limited material she’s given. But it’s clear that this one’s a boys show. And they do great work with it, so in this case, no harm no foul.

As for the rest of the flick, I honestly have never been the hugest fan of Wes Anderson’s work – sure, Royal Tenenbaums was nice enough, but it’s hard for me to appreciate work that is quirky for quirk’s sake alone – but I certainly think that Anderson may’ve found his calling in animated semi-kid flicks. Let him adapt as many Dahl books as he’d like (personally, I’d like to see George’s Marvellous Medicine next), because this deftly written script shone in a year when well-written and well-executed animated movies were of the norm.

Meryl’s Performance: B-
The Film: A-