My Year With Meryl: Mamma Mia (2008)

One of the great joys in watching a new Meryl movie every week is seeing her take chances not just on daring projects and unique characters, but on new genres. So many actors unfortunately get typecast in certain kinds of movies—think Hugh Grant or Cameron Diaz in romantic comedies—but Meryl continues to surprise with her genre choices. While drama is her number one genre of choice, she has not shied away from comedies, Defending Your Life, Death Becomes Her, and The Devil Wears Prada being three of her best movies ever. In addition, she has appeared in a suspense film (Still of the Night), an action movie (The River Wild), a children’s film (Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events), animated movies (The Ant Bully and Fantastic Mr. Box), and a western (The Homesman).

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One of the last major genres she hadn’t tackled before 2008 was the musical, which was odd given her beautiful singing voice. Meryl memorably sang in Ironweed, Death Becomes Her, and A Prairie Home Companion but had never led an all-star musical. It was bound to happen sooner or later, and Mamma Mia, based on the award-winning musical that premiered in London in 1999 and went on to be one of Broadway’s longest running hits, turned out to be the one that called her name. Meryl saw the musical in New York a few weeks after the September 11 terrorist attacks and wrote a letter to the show’s producers telling them how thankful she was for their bringing much-needed happiness to theatergoers. Phyllida Lloyd, who directed the stage-show and was chosen to also direct the film version, never forgot about that letter; her first and only choice for Donna in the movie was Meryl.

It would have been understandable for Meryl to say no to this project. Not only is this the kind of lightweight entertainment she hadn’t pursued in a few years but pulling off a movie musical is difficult—for every Chicago, there’s Rent and The Producers—and singing ABBA songs, as any member in the cast can attest to, can be a challenge. But when asked, Meryl was shocked that she was even considered, and she agreed to star in the film without a moment’s hesitation. She reportedly was never allowed to sing in her house around her son and daughters, so she decided she’d get her mini-revenge by leading a movie musical. Of course, the exotic location, amazing ensemble cast, catchy songs, and simple, engaging story also had something to do with her decision.

Film Title: Mamma Mia!

Mamma Mia tells of twenty-year-old Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), a young woman living in Greece who is about to marry her equally young Prince Charming named Sky (Dominic Cooper). Before her big day arrives, however, she sends out three letters to her three potential dads, men her mother dated one eventful summer. They all unexpectedly show up, to Sophie’s great joy, and her mother Donna’s consternation. As the wedding ceremony draws near, Sophie questions if she wants to get married at all, and Donna wonders if she still has the capacity to fall in love again. This original story, written by Catherine Johnson for both the stage version and the film version, plays out with more than a dozen ABBA songs that fit seamlessly into the plot.

Well maybe not all seamlessly, but most. Viewed in the right frame of mind, Mamma Mia is grand entertainment from beginning to end, a movie that exists for no other reason to make the viewer smile and feel good. While at times the cinematography feels a little too phony and glossy—much of the film was shot on the Pinewood Studios soundstages—and while there are a couple musical numbers that slow down the film’s pacing—as fun as “Does Your Mother Know” is, removing it would not affect the plot in any way—for the most part this movie works. There’s one more key flaw—more on that in a moment—but overall, the film is loads of fun, with one delightful song after another (“Honey, Honey” and “Dancing Queen” are two of the best) and lots of great actors clearly having a blast on-screen and not taking the cheesy story too seriously.

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Pierce Brosnan reportedly signed onto the movie not even knowing what it was—only that it was being shot in Greece and that Meryl was the lead. At this point in her career, Meryl had the power to attract terrific actors the world over to movies she was attached to, and Mamma Mia was no different. Playing Donna’s best friends, Christine Baranski and Julie Walters were perfectly chosen, making the life-long friendships between the three women believable; Walters is especially a hoot in the most comedic role in the movie. Amanda Seyfried is luminous, and Dominic Cooper is at his most handsome and charming. Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgard joined Brosnan as Sophie’s potential fathers, and all three actors brought welcome qualities to their roles, with Firth at his most confused and Skarsgard at his silliest. Brosnan is fine in his most high-profile role since he retired from the James Bond series, but the other huge flaw in the movie is his godawful singing voice, which is so bad that any emotion meant to be stirred up in the film’s sappy conclusion is tempered. While one has to give Brosnan credit for really going for it—his Razzie for Worst Supporting Actress is undeserved—it’s wise to assume he won’t be singing on-screen anytime soon.

Meryl had played such dour and reserved characters in her previous movies, like in Rendition and Lions for Lambs, and even The Devil Wears Prada to some extent, so to watch her be sexy and kid-like and totally uninhibited in Mamma Mia is a great pleasure for any Meryl fan. This was one of her most physically demanding roles since The River Wild, so much so that the then fifty-eight-year-old had to train for three weeks to get in proper shape—climbing a tall ladder while singing ABBA’s “Mamma Mia” takes a little stamina—and her exuberance really comes through, particularly in her early scenes when she’s dancing through the streets and doing cannonballs off piers. Meryl, in a Golden Globe-nominated performance, is absorbing in a central role that could have played one-note in the hands of a different actress. Despite the emphasis on entertaining musical numbers over moments of subtlety and character realizations, Meryl always finds time for genuine emotion, even when it’s just a quick look at Brosnan or a glimpse at Seyfried in the mirror.

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But the greatest thrill of all in watching Mamma Mia is to finally hear Meryl belt out not just a couple of songs, which audience members had been privileged to hear in a few of her previous movies, but multiple ones, each with its own tempo and flavor. It’s a little weird to watch Academy Award winner Meryl Streep sliding down a bannister and singing the silly but infectious “Dancing Queen,” and she’s unfortunately not given much help by Brosnan in the strained version of “S.O.S.” Her best songs are “Mamma Mia,” “Slipping Through My Fingers,” and her big, emotional showstopper, “The Winner Takes It All,” which allows her to just sing, without choreography, without any bells and whistles. If anything can prove that Meryl could record her own album and be taken seriously as a singer, it’s her goosebumps-raising rendition of “The Winner Takes It All.”

Mamma Mia opened on July 18, 2008, the same day as The Dark Knight, acting as the perfect counterprogramming to the Christopher Nolan juggernaut. Mamma Mia, while only making peanuts that weekend compared to the giant haul The Dark Knight pulled in, turned into a true blockbuster all its own, quickly besting The Devil Wears Prada’s stupendous box office take with 144 million nationwide and an astonishing 610 million worldwide. Given that Meryl doesn’t star in a Marvel movie (she did tell Jimmy Kimmel that she wouldn’t not consider being in a superhero movie), Mamma Mia will likely stand as her all-time highest grosser. And after having made four disappointing bombs in a row, this musical, her only until 2014’s Into the Woods, proved that Meryl was back on track.

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My Year With Meryl: Dark Matter (2008)

And now we’ve arrived at Meryl’s most obscure film of all. Sure, she’s made movies that didn’t connect with audiences—The House of the Spirits and Dancing at Lughnasa come to mind—and she’s made some that fell short at a dramatic level, like the lame Still of the Night and the bland Before & After. But if I had to pick the oddest title of all on Meryl’s lengthy resume, it would be Dark Matter, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2007 but wasn’t officially released in the United States until April 2008, when it played in just a handful of theaters before it quickly disappeared (the film only made $30,000 in its initial run, easily an all-time low for Meryl). This is a quiet, mostly insignificant movie that few people know about, and the die-hard Meryl fans who do will be disappointed when they discover how short of screen-time Meryl has.

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Dark Matter is loosely based on the tragic shooting that took place at the University of Iowa in 1991, when a physicist named Gang Lu, who had recently received his PhD, shot and killed three of his former professors, as well as a school administrator. In the film, Liu Xing (Ye Liu) has moved from China to attend school in Salt Lake City as a graduate student in Cosmology. Liu pursues theories about dark matter for his dissertation, which his professor Jacob Reiser (Aidan Quinn) ultimately rejects, leaving Liu lost and without purpose. His benefactor Joanna Silver (Meryl) sees potential in him early on, but also recognizes a dark side to the young man—albeit a little too late. Blair Brown, Bill Irwin, and a pre-Orange is the New Black Taylor Schilling round out the ensemble cast.

This is not a bad movie, so much as it is a confused one. The story of a Chinese student trying to find his way in the American university system is a worthwhile one, and the frustrations that Liu goes through in the first hour of the movie make for compelling viewing. The initial complements he receives from Professor Reiser, who thinks he has the potential for greatness, only add to the disappointment later when Reiser disapproves of Liu’s theories and asks him to pursue simpler, more factual territory. Director Shi-Zheng Chen, who made his debut here, and whose only other feature film to date is Disney High School Musical: China, gives the film a unique, muted physical look, and the idea of a movie that criticizes the system of higher education in this country could be fascinating with the right material.

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However, while some of these scenes work well, the movie is all over the place in terms of its narrative structure, and at only 85 minutes, it’s so short to barely have time to register for the viewer. There’s a plot involving Liu’s parents that never plays a strong enough role. There are interludes involving words like “fire” and “water” that add little to the movie’s impact. Some of the music is totally out of place, especially “This Land is Your Land” that begins the end credits, and the conclusion comes so wildly out of left field that it’s hard to get worked up about it. It’s so depressing, and mostly inexplicable, that it ruins most of what’s come before. If a film is going to end on such a downbeat note, it needs to be earned, and Dark Matter’s finale isn’t in the slightest. Ye Liu is an effective screen presence, but there is little set-up, few clues ever given throughout the narrative, to show the darkness his character is capable of.

The biggest letdown of all, though, is that despite her large presence on many of the DVD covers, Meryl has just a tiny part in this movie, one that doesn’t add much to story. The director had never made a movie before, it’s a small film with a depressing ending, and her part is mostly without interest, so it’s truly puzzling what made Meryl sign on to this project. She did get to act with her Music of the Heart co-star Quinn again, and working with a group of international actors might have peaked her interest. But, like in most of the movies she made around this time, her character is not given enough for an actress of her talent and caliber to do. She has more screen-time in this than in Rendition, and certainly in Evening, but only a couple of her scenes resonate with the viewer. Weirdly, she’s also never looked so pale and sickly in a movie since her Oscar-nominated role in Ironweed; it’s almost as if following her role in The Devil Wears Prada, Meryl wanted to shed every ounce of her vanity for her next project.

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Dark Matter actually opens on Meryl, as she performs tai chi in her backyard underneath a dark, cloudy sky. We are not formally introduced to her character for a long time after this, but if nothing else, this film provides one of the most haunting opening shots of Meryl in any of her movies. When she finally appears in a classroom scene, sporting almost no make-up and a wild curly hairdo, excitement brews as to what kind role she will play. Will she get behind Liu and help him reach his lofty goals? Will she enter a scandalous romantic relationship with him? Unfortunately little comes of their strange friendship, and only one scene toward the end can be considered memorable. Liu arrives at Joanna’s house unannounced, and when he drops to his knees and starts applying make-up first to her hand, then to her face, she stops him, the intimacy finally too much for her to bear. This is a creepy moment between the two, and the only real foreshadowing of the horrors that are to come.

After a string of disappointing supporting roles in mostly forgettable movies, Meryl finally bounced back in 2008 to the mainstream consciousness in two massive hits, one a summer blockbuster, the other an awards-friendly darling. Meryl may have lost her way for a little while, as all actors do from time to time, but following the mediocre Dark Matter, it was pure bliss for Meryl fans for many years to come.

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My Year With Meryl: Lions for Lambs (2007)

After the misfires of Evening and Rendition, Meryl’s last major release of 2007 looked to be a slam dunk with audiences and critics, and potentially bring Meryl year-end nominations in the Supporting Actress category. Lions for Lambs was a topical film at the time, a serious examination of the Iraq war that received a major wide release and an awards-friendly November opening. The film marked Robert Redford’s seventh film as director, and despite the 2000 bomb The Legend of Bagger Vance, Redford had achieved great success years earlier with Quiz Show, A River Runs Through It, and Ordinary People, which won Redford his first, and to date only, Academy Award. Lions for Lambs marked Andrew Garfield’s feature film debut, and it gave Tom Cruise—coming off a record seven blockbusters in a row that all grossed more than 100 million—his first purely dramatic role since 1999’s Magnolia. It re-teamed Redford and Meryl for the first time since Out of Africa (albeit never in the same scene), and best of all, it gave Meryl the most screen-time and juiciest character of any of her 2007 releases.

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Evening and Rendition should have worked but didn’t, and Lions for Lambs definitely should have been at the very least competent entertainment. That Lions for Lambs bores the viewer senseless just as much as the other two is inexplicable. The film is about serious issues and it’s got a variety of powerhouse actors, but while it starts strong, with nice tension developing especially between Meryl and Cruise in their early scenes, the movie peters out around the halfway mark and ultimately doesn’t go anywhere, even with its brief ninety-minute runtime. The biggest problem is that the film ultimately just becomes a series of talking heads, with little revealed about any of the characters and even less revealed that we as the audience didn’t already know about the state of the world. Redford didn’t need to make an action picture by any means, but Lions for Lambs at the time felt like too little too late, which is only made worse all these years later.

Like Rendition, which was released just three weeks prior, Lions for Lambs features multiple narratives that all deal with issues of international terrorism. Lions for Lambs specifically has three stories: one about a Republican Senator named Jasper Irving (Cruise) who gives an hour-long interview regarding the war in Afghanistan to a jaded television reporter Janine Roth (Meryl), who praised the senator years ago but now feels he might be letting her down; one about a political science professor named Stephen Malley who holds an early morning meeting with a potentially brilliant student Todd (Garfield), who rarely comes to class and never does the readings but who always has something profound to say; and one about two students-turned-soldiers Ernest (Michael Pena) and Arian (Derek Luke) who fight for their lives against Taliban forces on an Afghani ridge. The stories come together in some predictable ways, but also in ways viewers may not expect.

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Despite its problems, Lions for Lambs, as previously mentioned, maintains one’s interest throughout most of the first half. Meryl and Cruise are two actors who are just naturally interesting to watch in whatever they do on-screen, so to see them debate each other back and forth for minutes on end commands the viewer’s attention. When they start disagreeing and she asks increasingly difficult questions, his frustrated answers give the film its most harrowing moments. Cruise was actually perfect casting for this stiff of a senator, and despite the shortcomings of the screenplay by Matthew Michael Carnaham (who went on to co-write World War Z), he is particularly good as this character, never going over-the-top with his mannerisms, always selling his ideas like any good politician would. Cruise plays slimy well—Magnolia, Collateral, and Interview With the Vampire all come to mind—and he is at his slimy best here.

These scenes with Cruise and Meryl are solid, if a bit longwinded by the time their chat finally wraps up; it’s the other two storylines that bring the film down. Garfield is natural in his first big screen role as the intelligent pupil, but his scenes with Redford lack energy, and they become monotonous after awhile. If there was a worthwhile payoff regarding Todd’s future, it might have worked, but since this story doesn’t go anywhere, it doesn’t belong in the film. Even worse is the story with Pena and Luke. The scene in the classroom where they explain their decisions to enlist in the military is a good one, but the actual combat scenes in Afghanistan, all done at night, feel like reused footage from other movies, and they’re out of balance with all the other talking heads.

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The scenes with Cruise and Meryl work the best, and in Janine, Meryl found her most complex and engaging character of her films released in 2007. So ruthless and powerful in her previous The Devil Wears Prada and Rendition, Meryl here plays an aging journalist who feels like she can no longer make any real impact on the world. You can always see her wanting to dig in to Cruise’s character more and more as the film goes on, but she’s clearly afraid of going too personal or accusatory, and she holds back. It’s after she leaves the senator’s office and endures a bitter meeting with her editor (Kevin Dunn) when Meryl delivers her best work in the movie. She’s tired of all the bullshit and disappointed in what she’s been force-fed, and while her boss demands her to get on with the story, she has a moment of clarity that changes everything.

While Lions for Lambs marked Meryl’s third bomb in a row, one that only topped out at 15 million (about a third of what many of Cruise’s previous films made just in the opening weekends), she did get a few nice scenes to play, allowing her to create the kind of fully embodied character she didn’t get in either Evening or Rendition. While one more obscure Meryl film awaited release in early 2008, thankfully Meryl was not on the verge of appearing in a dozen more movies no one seemed to care about. Instead, she was on the verge of a career renaissance that actresses half her age could only dream about. Yes, Mamma Mia, Doubt, and a third Academy Award, were on the horizon.

LIONS FOR LAMBS © 2007 United Artists, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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My Year With Meryl: Rendition (2007)

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The line of disappointing 2007 films continued for Meryl with the release of Rendition, and, like Evening, it had the makings of a stellar achievement. It paired Meryl with a superb group of actors, many of whom had recently won or been nominated for Academy Awards. Reese Witherspoon was coming off her Oscar for Walk the Line, Alan Arkin had just won for Little Miss Sunshine, and Jake Gyllenhaal had been nominated for Brokeback Mountain. The director Gavin Hood had directed the acclaimed South African movie Tsotsi, the winner of the 2005 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. Rendition told an important topical story that featured multiple narratives and scenes of shocking violence and potentially heart-wrenching emotion. When it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, early word was solid, and the great Roger Ebert even considered it a perfect film.

But everything changed when the movie opened in late October. Audiences stayed away, and most who showed up walked away disappointed. Topping out at less than 10 million nationwide, Rendition was a flop at the box office that was essentially pulled from theaters by the time Meryl’s next flop, Lions for Lambs, opened in November. It has some good performances and a couple of scenes that work, but for the most part, this film is cold, uninvolving, and extremely slow. Meryl is barely in it, and worst of all, she plays a role that literally any woman in Hollywood age forty to seventy could have played with ease. Susan Sarandon, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange, Kathy Bates—all of these actresses could have played the part, and nobody would have blinked. Meryl does a serviceable job in this one, but nothing more, and certainly nothing extraordinary.

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Rendition is a two-hour drama with too much talk and too little drama. At the beginning of the movie, a terrorist bombing kills an American in Africa, and an investigation leads to an Egyptian man Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally) who has lived in the United States for many years and who is married to an American woman, Isabella (Reese Witherspoon). He is apprehended when his plane lands and the U.S. sends him back to the country where the terrible incident occurred. A CIA operative Douglas Freeman (Jake Gyllenhaal) watches the torture of this man and debates whether to keep it going or not. The pregnant Isabella continues to ask about the whereabouts of her husband but nobody, despite her increasing frustration, gives her any information. Meryl plays Douglas’ boss Corrine Whitman, who asks that the detention of Anwar continue, thinking that to set him free could put thousands of people in harm’s way.

What drew Meryl to this project, and this banal character? She has said in interviews that the script got her heart racing and that she wasn’t typically offered thrillers (although whether Rendition can be considered a thriller is up for debate). Her daughter Mamie played her younger self in Evening, so it made logical sense for Meryl to appear in that film. Lions for Lambs offered her the chance to act in scenes with Tom Cruise, as well as reunite with her Out of Africa co-star Robert Redford, albeit this time with her as the actress and him as the director. But besides the high wattage of star power and a director coming off a beloved foreign movie, Rendition must have simply read better on paper. Meryl has said that she likes playing the boss—The Devil Wears Prada, The Iron Lady, and The Giver are just a few of her recent films showing her in charge—so maybe the prospect of playing another powerful figure appealed to her. However the part must have looked in the screenplay, it doesn’t give her much to play with, and the role has to be considered one of her weakest in her entire career.

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The problem with Rendition is that despite all the talent involved, and all the ambition that went into the piece, little of it stays with the viewer once the end credits start rolling. It’s one of those movies that has way too many narratives, to the point where none of them get another screen-time to make any real impact. Witherspoon’s storyline had the best chance for emotional resonance, but she’s seen so infrequently that it’s hard not to giggle when she screams at Meryl that immortal line, “Just tell me he’s okay!” Gyllenhaal is one of our finest actors, but he basically just stands around and looks stoic; how many scenes are we supposed to watch of him just standing in a dark corner? Peter Sarsgaard plays a character he always seems to play, the great JK Simmons appears in a small intimidating part that goes nowhere, and Arkin throws out a few snarky lines before he basically disappears for the rest of the movie.

Meryl has no more than ten scenes, most of which consist of her talking angrily into a phone or standing at an upscale party looking like Lady Macbeth, in a regal gown Miranda Priestly likely would have vomited on. Her first scene, waking up in bed at two in the morning, doesn’t even allow her a memorable entrance; the camera just pans around the bed as she talks on the phone in the dark. You would think that she would have one explosive scene, or some kind of eye-popping moment that captures your attention. But aside from a short monologue she says to Sarsgaard, she doesn’t even say much in her scenes. She stands around looking not like our finest living actress but like a movie star waiting to cash a check before she moves on to her next project. Rendition is an unsuccessful movie that commits the worst of crimes; it wastes Meryl’s talent by giving her a totally unworthy character. Meryl is known for being offered the cream of the crop when it comes to film parts, but in a trio of movies in 2007, for some strange reason, she only seemed to be offered scraps.

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My Year With Meryl: Evening (2007)

2007 was a strange year for Meryl. After the stellar summer of 2006, when A Prairie Home Companion opened to glowing reviews and The Devil Wears Prada became an unexpected smash at the box office, Meryl became busier than ever, shooting various projects with stellar casts and acclaimed directors. In one of her most prolific years since 1979, when Manhattan, The Seduction of Joe Tynan, and Kramer Vs. Kramer were all released, 2007 gave us a Meryl movie seemingly every few weeks. Her underrated and mostly forgotten Dark Matter played at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival (but wasn’t officially released until early 2008), Evening came out in the summer, Rendition opened in October, and Lions for Lambs was released in November, as Oscar season was starting to heat up. She seemed to be everywhere that year, but what made 2007 strange was not that she was in a lot of movies, but because she appeared in a lot of bad movies. Rendition falls flat, Lions for Lambs is a complete disaster, and Evening, the first of her three official 2007 films, might be the biggest disappointment of all.

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All of the elements are in place for Evening to be a great movie. Michael Cunningham, whose novel The Hours became the Academy Award-winning 2002 film with Meryl, co-wrote the screenplay to Evening with the author of the bestselling novel, Susan Minot. The Oscar-nominated director Lajos Koltai was coming off an acclaimed foreign film, Fateless. The ensemble cast is one of the most impressive to have ever been assembled—Claire Danes, Toni Collette, Vanessa Redgrave, Patrick Wilson, Hugh Dancy, Eileen Atkins, Barry Bostwick, Glenn Close, and Natasha Richardson, in her final dramatic role. Meryl’s daughter Mamie Gummer appeared in her second major film role (after 2006’s The Hoax), playing the younger version of Meryl’s character Lila. Everything about this movie screamed, success.

Two storylines are featured, one set close to present day, the other in the 1950s. The present day storyline is by far the weaker of the two. Redgrave plays Ann Lord, who is spending her last dying days withering away in an upstairs bedroom. Her two adult children (Collette and Richardson, the latter of whom was Redgrave’s real life daughter) are spending time with her at the home, wanting to bond with their mother with the little time they still have. Ann speaks of a special time in her life, when she was in her twenties and attended the wedding of her friend Lila. Danes plays the younger Ann, and during the course of a few memorable days, Ann pursues the gorgeous Harris (Wilson) while the quirky Buddy (Dancy) falls for her. When a tragedy occurs, nothing ever stays the same for Ann.

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Evening is the sad case of a movie where everyone involved surely thought it was going to be a winner, but little about it works. Hugh Dancy is the one member of the cast who creates an intriguing character, a guy with inner demons who could have been the focus of a film all his own. Danes is solid as usual, and it’s especially bittersweet to watch Redgrave and Richardson share a tender moment on screen, when Richardson was two years away from her untimely death. However, most of the film lays inert on the screen. Little tension is ever established, and most awkward of all is the cutting back and forth between storylines. Just when the 1950s narrative starts to get interesting, the director cuts back to the present day narrative, often not for just a minute or two, but for a long, unnecessary stretch of time. More effective would have been to open and end with the present day storyline, and allow the 1950s storyline to encompass the majority of the screen-time. Two or three scenes of Redgrave rotting away in a bed is sad; fifteen scenes of it is just plain monotonous.

As dull and uneventful as the movie turned out to be, there are many parallels to previous Meryl movies worth noting for trivia buffs. As previously mentioned, this was Meryl’s second collaboration with Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Cunningham. Of all films she has made, Evening is very much like The Hours; both films deal with multiple narratives, both have a significant storyline set in the 1950s, and both star Meryl, Toni Collette, and Claire Danes. Meryl’s first film Julia, from 1977, won Vanessa Redgrave a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, and here, the two actresses got to have their first, and to date only, scene on film together. This movie marked the first time Meryl and her daughter Mamie appeared in the same project, and it was the second time for Meryl and her good friend Glenn Close (although never in the same scene, unlike in The House of the Spirits).

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Meryl doesn’t actually appear in Evening until the third act, about ninety minutes in, by far the longest it’s ever taken for her to enter a film. In what amounts to little more than a cameo, Meryl, playing the older Lila, arrives at the home, walks upstairs, reminisces with Ann, shares a tender moment with Ann’s daughter Nina (Collette), and leaves; that’s about it. Meryl looks extremely old in Evening, with credible and unflattering make-up, and she does her best with a mostly nothing role that she probably took because she felt she had to. The film had stellar talent in front of and behind the scenes, and her daughter Mamie was actually cast first—everyone on the crew must have thought it pretty obvious to cast Meryl as the older character for the film’s conclusion. She gives the present day narrative a jolt of energy it desperately needs, and while it’s nowhere near her finest moment on screen, there’s a fascination in watching two pros like Meryl and Redgrave play, even if only for a few minutes.

Overall, Evening is a film that should have been great but rarely delivers. It bombed with most critics, was a clunker at the summer box office, and did not receive any year end awards nominations that many involved likely expected—its lone, awkward nomination of any kind was The Movie You Wanted to Love But Just Couldn’t at the Alliance of Women Film Journalists (!). The film was a disappointment for Meryl, but most shocking of all, the lame Evening would actually be the best of her three 2007 films.

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My Year With Meryl: The Devil Wears Prada (2006)

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When people think of movies that gross big bucks in the summer time, they’ll often think of action films, sequels, bloated studio tentpoles that cost 200 million dollars or more; most people don’t think of movies made for a female audience, and they certainly don’t assume a film with a lead actress who’s—yikes—older than fifty could possibly star in a movie that makes money. Studio executives have been known, now more than ever before, to make their summer movies for a specific demographic—teen boys—and any movie aimed at women that happens to earn a few dollars is typically regarded as a fluke. In the summer of 2006, when blockbusters like Poseidon and Superman Returns were failing, a sharp, clever, exceedingly funny film broke through and became a modern comedy classic. The Devil Wears Prada is not only one of Meryl’s most entertaining films but it was arguably her first true blockbuster.

Meryl has had a few noteworthy stages in her career. In the late 1970s, she was a supporting actress, appearing in small roles in five films and one mini-series that started to get her noticed. Throughout the 1980s, she appeared in one heavy drama after another, in complex roles that netted her a whopping six Academy Award nominations for Best Actress in a span of just seven years. From 1989 to 1992 she stretched her comedic muscles by making four comedies in a row. She moved into action with The River Wild, gave a startling performance in The Bridges of Madison County, then played it sort of safe for the rest of the 1990s with a series of mediocre dramas. In the first half of the 2000s she made a few memorable turns in Adaptation and Angels in America, and started becoming more unpredictable with her choices. And then in the second half of the 2000s she became something truly unexpected, probably by no one more than Meryl herself—a box office superstar.

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She made The Devil Wears Prada when she was fifty-six years old, an age when most actors, especially women, have been relegated to the role of the supportive mother or the wise schoolteacher. Women in their fifties almost never receive exciting lead roles in movies, and it’s practically unheard of for a woman in that age bracket to be able to open a movie. So when The Devil Wears Prada opened to twenty-seven million and went on to earn 125 million in the United States alone, more than a few people turned their heads. The only movie Meryl was a lead in prior that even came close to such a mammoth box office take was Out of Africa, in 1985, with eighty-seven million—and that won Best Picture. Many assumed The Devil Wears Prada’s high gross was a rare success story, but then it kept happening. Two years later, Meryl’s female-driven Mamma Mia opened on the same weekend as The Dark Knight, and still made 144 million nationwide (and 610 million worldwide!), her highest film gross to date. A year later Julie & Julia soared to ninety-four million, and It’s Complicated topped out at 113 million. Even 2012’s Hope Springs, a low-key relationship dramedy, made sixty-four million. For the last few years, Meryl has enjoyed a fascinating new stage of her career, and it all started with The Devil Wears Prada.

Meryl’s 2006 blockbuster is not a perfect film by any means. It’s predictable most of the way through, and while Anne Hathaway, Stanley Tucci, and especially Emily Blunt shine in their roles, the movie would not work nearly as well without Meryl’s memorable portrayal of the boss from Hell. Hathaway, who received a major career boost of her own with this project, plays Andy Sachs, a recent college graduate who comes to New York to be a famous journalist and ends up working as second assistant to Miranda Priestley (Meryl), one of the most important and notorious fashion magazine editors in town. Working alongside first assistant Emily (the hilarious Blunt), Andy tries to survive under the dictatorship of her maniacal boss who expects everything and more for those who work for her. Miranda barks seventeen orders at Andy, then changes them, then demands her to find an unpublished Harry Potter manuscript in a matter of hours. It at times gets to be too much for Andy, especially as she tries to make a relationship work with her boyfriend Nate (Adrian Grenier). As the year goes on, however, she hits her stride at work and becomes Miranda’s most trusted assistant. Will Andy ultimately become the next Miranda Priestley and abandon the person she used to be, or will she get out before it’s too late?

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David Frankel, who had previously directed episodes of Sex and the City and Entourage, made The Devil Wears Prada colorful and fun, with a brisk pacing that almost never falters. From the quick-moving opening titles to the various fashion montages to an ending that wraps things fast and satisfactorily, this is not a slow-moving drama that takes its time. The Devil Wears Prada is meant to be a crowd-pleaser from beginning to end, and on that level, it shines. It’s a movie that knows what it wants to be but at the same time never panders to its audience. The screenplay by Aline Brosh McKenna, which was adapted from Lauren Weisberger’s popular novel, has a familiar structure, but it’s the dialogue throughout that makes this film stand out from others. Miranda’s vicious speeches and outrageous demands always yield laughs, and Emily’s put-downs to Andy might be the funniest of all. Many movies in this genre can feel too pedestrian, too manipulative at times, but such is never the case with The Devil Wears Prada.

Casting always makes or breaks a film, and in this case, the casting of the four major characters is perfect. While Andy’s boyfriend Nate could have been played by anyone—Grenier is OK but doesn’t have a lot to work with—and Simon Baker is adequate but nothing special in the role of the scheming Christian, the four leads all leave memorable impressions. Anne Hathaway was most known for playing a Disney princess before this movie (Meryl was reportedly skeptical of Hathaway’s casting in the beginning), but it was her completely charming performance in The Devil Wears Prada that signified a new chapter of her blossoming career. She is appropriately dowdy in the beginning, wearing awkward sweaters and eating onion bagels, and as well as her outer transformation into the more fashionable Andy works, it’s the change on the inside that pops off the screen. Hathaway holds her own against Meryl all the way through. Emily Blunt was plucked from near obscurity for this movie—she had mostly acted in British television productions before—and was an inspired choice for the smart-mouthed, hot-tempered Emily. “I’m one stomach flu away from my goal weight” is probably the line people remember the most but she has countless zingers all the way through. Stanley Tucci, who went on to play Meryl’s loving husband in Julie & Julia, makes the role of Miranda’s right hand man Nigel an original and ultimately endearing character, when he could have been played more selfish and stereotypical by another actor. He is at his best here, too.

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Meryl received her fourteenth Academy Award nomination for The Devil Wears Prada, one of the few she has nabbed for a comedic film, and she, more than any other actor in the film, takes a role that could have easily—very easily—been one-note and obvious, and makes it three-dimensional in every way. Remarkably, Meryl gets us to care about Miranda by the end of the movie, no small feat. When we are first introduced to her, she is the tyrannical boss who trudges down her office hallway like a Tyrannosaurus Rex willing to squash anyone who gets in her way. The early scenes where she spits out one venomous line of dialogue after another give the film some of its best entertainment value, and the monologues when she voices her disappointment in Andy are always shockingly vitriolic. Despite her being the villain of the movie, Miranda can’t always be a hateful witch, and no one knows that better than Meryl herself. Occasionally we see traces of Miranda’s personal life at home, but it’s in a heartbreaking scene in a Paris hotel room, when Meryl wears no make-up and trembles as she talks about the break-up of her marriage, that shows more than anything else Meryl’s mastery. She finds just the right balance of Miranda’s vulnerability and still brewing cynicism in this moment, the scene that made Meryl want to do the movie, and probably the scene that netted her the well-deserved Oscar nomination.

The Devil Wears Prada will never be viewed on the same level as Meryl’s masterful dramas like Kramer Vs. Kramer and Sophie’s Choice, and in a career that has seen two comedic gems—Defending Your Life and Death Becomes Her—this film might not even be considered her great comedy achievement. But in the year since its successful release it has become one of Meryl’s most beloved movies and features what will always be one of her most memorable performances. Meryl could have played the role of Miranda as a superficial villain but instead infused in her just enough humanity to show why she became this way and what she really wants out of her life and career. The Devil Wears Prada is grand entertainment every step of the way, and it remains one of my all-time favorite Meryl movies.

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My Year With Meryl: A Prairie Home Companion (2006)

 

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Meryl singing—it makes any movie she’s in better. Her show-stopping number in Ironweed is that film’s best scene, Death Becomes Her has an awesome Broadway-style opener, and Postcards from the Edge ends with a truly grand finale. Of course when most people think of Meryl and singing, they think of Mamma Mia, but probably half of her entire performance in A Prairie Home Companion, the final film by legendary director Robert Altman, is comprised of Meryl belting out songs, often with her on-screen sister, the great Lily Tomlin. While the film hasn’t much of a plot, the entertainment in this movie comes from watching terrific actors sing their hearts out, in the final film of one of the most important film directors of the twentieth century.

A Prairie Home Companion has been a live radio variety show hosted by Garrison Keillor since 1974, and, as of 2015, it still runs every Saturday. Music is the main feature of the show, typically American folk music that includes country, blues, and gospel. The film, shot in the summer of 2005 and released in June 2006, shows a look behind-the-scenes at the famous radio show, albeit a fictionalized one. For example, the radio broadcast in the movie is the long-running public radio show’s last, despite the fact that in real life it’s still going strong. And while major musical talents have appeared on the show, no celebrities on the level of Kevin Kline or Tommy Lee Jones—both of whom have starred with Meryl in Sophie’s Choice and Hope Springs, respectively—have lent their talents to the actual broadcast (although Meryl herself appeared on one show, in character from the movie!). The film is faithful to the show, however, with it given a slow, thoughtful pacing by director Altman that suits this material well.

The film takes place over one night, before, during, and after the final broadcast. Keillor, the show’s creator, appears as himself, while many great film actors play fictionalized roles. Almost every Robert Altman film has an amazing ensemble—even a clunker like Dr T. and the Women got an astonishing cast—and A Prairie Home Companion is no different, with actors like Woody Harrelson, Kevin Kline, Maya Rudolph, Lily Tomlin (who appeared in his masterpiece Nashville three decades earlier), John C. Reilly, Tommy Lee Jones, and Meryl, in her first and only performance in an Altman movie. Lindsay Lohan, playing Meryl’s daughter Lola, is miscast, with a character who’s given way too much emphasis in the finale, and Virginia Madsen, hot off her Oscar nomination for Sideways, plays a strange character called the Dangerous Woman that doesn’t add much to the narrative. The joy in this movie comes when Keillor, who wrote the screenplay, stops trying to give the story emotional weight and conflict, and allows these fine actors to talk about their lives and sing their favorite songs.

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Altman is known for making movies that ramble, and feel true to life. Gosford Park, the last movie to net him an Oscar nomination, is a mystery set in a large country house that plays out like few mysteries do, and his classics MASH and Nashville amaze with the way multiple characters and storylines overlap with one another. A Prairie Home Companion has the feel of his classic films, and it is in every way the appropriate swan song for Altman, who shows the kind of sweetness and care he brought to all his movies. In a career that spanned more than fifty years, it’s astonishing that he and Meryl never worked together up until his last movie. She reportedly jumped at the chance to work with Altman, and, just like how Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn created magic in On Golden Pond, two great artists coming together once is always better than nothing.

Meryl plays Yolanda Johnson, one half of a sister singing team from Wisconsin. They are the last remaining duo from a famous country music act, bound and determined to keep singing long into the radio show’s final broadcast. Lily Tomlin plays her sister Rhonda, and the chemistry between these two jumps off the screen from their first moment they share backstage. Despite the ten-year age difference between the actresses in real life, they feel like sisters from the get-go, finishing each other’s sentences, cracking at each other’s jokes even before the other completes the telling of it. While A Prairie Home Companion is a true ensemble piece, Meryl gets plenty of moments to shine as this plucky, tender, loving mother (a total opposite from her other major role in a film that came out the same month—The Devil Wears Prada).

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Her songs are definitely the highlights of the movie. One effective moment takes Meryl from backstage to the microphone all in one take, before she starts on one of her songs. She sings a goofy duet with Keillor about rhubarb pie and takes the stage with most of the cast at the end to sing a farewell ballad, but it’s the two main songs she sings with Tomlin that bring out the best in her. “My Minnesota Home” is a gem, with Altman keeping the camera floating back and forth between Meryl and Tomlin’s faces as they belt out the nostalgic lyrics. And then there’s “Goodbye to My Mama,” which was so moving to Tomlin, who lost her mother soon before shooting this movie, that it didn’t take much for her tears to start flowing. This is probably the most devastating song in the film, one that Altman plays out mostly in one long take, and it’s a treat to hear Meryl sing the lyrics.

In Meryl’s career, the year 2006 will likely most be remembered for her ingenious turn in David Frankel’s The Devil Wears Prada, a movie that still remains one of her great entertainments. It’s the film she received an Academy Award nomination for that year, and it’s the Meryl movie you’re probably most likely to find playing on cable. But she also made a worthwhile ensemble movie that year, one that is so wholesome and sweet it feels like few films that get made anymore. A Prairie Home Companion doesn’t have a complicated plot or much tension, but that’s okay. This is the kind of film you sit back and let wash over you with its myriad of small delights.

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My Year With Meryl: Prime (2005)

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Meryl has made a lot more great movies than she has bad ones. For every Kramer Vs. Kramer and The Hours, there’s only the occasional movie like The House of the Spirits. In 2007 she had a string of bad films—Rendition probably being the worst—and her Oscar-winning The Iron Lady has its haters. Arguably the most forgettable movie she’s made in her long list of credits, though, is the 2005 comedy Prime. Here is a film with a decent premise and two strong female leads that starts off okay but then goes nowhere. More than maybe any project she’s appeared in, Prime has the feeling of something she did for a paycheck, or because she had a free chunk of time and wanted to work. This is not to say that the movie is a boring, joyless experience. It’s totally watchable, with a few moments of genuine tension and a couple funny Meryl moments. As a whole, though, the film just doesn’t add up to much.

Prime, which remains one of the few projects Meryl has headlined that received not a single award nomination of any kind, blends comedy, drama, and romance in a story of missed connections and ironies that Woody Allen probably could have done more with. Uma Thurman, fresh off her performance in Kill Bill (and taking over a role that Sandra Bullock dropped out of when the director refused to make script changes) plays Rafi, a career woman who’s been unlucky in love. She meets regularly with a psychoanalyst Lisa (Meryl), who is the person Rafi feels most comfortable discussing her sexual escapades with. She meets a cute younger man David (Bryan Greenberg) at a film event, and the two begin dating. Even though she is thirty-seven and he is twenty-three (both prime numbers! a coincidence?), they connect in a genuine way and he soon moves into her apartment. Rafi shares every intimate detail of David with her psychoanalyst Lisa, but here’s the catch: Lisa is David’s mother! What will happen when Lisa finds out that Rafi’s dating her son? Will their relationship continue? Will Rafi and David be able to stay together? Do we care?

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The best scenes in the movie are the therapy sessions, when the camera is locked off and allows us to observe Thurman and Meryl playing off each other. There are at least five of these scenes, and it’s during these moments that the narrative comes to life, especially once Lisa knows her patient is dating her son. But when these two aren’t sharing the same frame together, the movie suffers. Ben Younger wrote and directed Prime, his second theatrical film, and to date his last theatrical film. His first movie Boiler Room was a top-notch corporate thriller with Giovanni Ribisi riveting in the lead role, Vin Diesel before The Fast and the Furious, and Ben Affleck in a memorably villainous supporting turn. Prime is of a different genre and style, and it just doesn’t suit him. He says in the behind-the-scenes DVD documentary that the story was inspired by real life circumstances; maybe he should have gone deeper into his imagination, to pull out something more original. While the Meet Cute between David and Rafi in the beginning is effective, their relationship, especially the growing amount of bickering, soon becomes tiresome, and it’s only the fleeting moments of Meryl in the second half that gives the film any life.

One of the main problems with the movie is Bryan Greenberg, an actor with little charisma. While he is pretty to look at, and would be at home in an ensemble on, say, a CBS TV series, he lacks the star power necessary to carry a whole film. He tries to hold his own with Thurman and Meryl, and while he doesn’t give a bad performance, he never pops off the screen. There’s no chemistry between him and Thurman (their kissing scenes are so intense it’s weird to think what Sandra Bullock in Thurman’s role would have been like), and he often looks lost in the scenes he shares with Meryl, like he was doing everything in his power to not blow his lines in front of an acting icon.

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The film is predictable and calculated all the way through, with an ending that the director might have thought of as daring, when in reality it can be seen a mile away. The movie lacks energy, in a story that very much needs it. There’s too much emphasis on quickly cut flashbacks. The title is weird, even the poster is bland. There’s nothing in Prime one hasn’t seen before, so it’s difficult to see what attracted Meryl to the project. In the behind-the-scenes documentary, she says that the script made her laugh. That’s as good a reason as any, I guess, but one would hope she has a bit higher standards for the projects she commits to be in, especially at this point in her career. Of course, she would shoot The Devil Wears Prada less than a year later, and all is right with the world.

The story of Prime had the makings of an interesting comedy romance, but it got boggled in the process, with the wrong storyteller, a miscast male lead, and a tone that never strikes the right balance. Meryl creates an amusing character, a psychoanalyst with bushy brown hair and a no-nonsense voice who has neuroses all her own. Her facial expressions as Rafi talks about David’s perfect penis get some laughs, and a sitcom-y moment when Lisa pulls her husband down to the ground in a furniture store is entertaining. Meryl does the best that she can with a script that is often more tired than inspired. In the end, Prime is proof that even the finest of actors can’t save every movie they’re in, even when they have the best of intentions.

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My Year With Meryl: Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004)

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When Meryl received the AFI Lifetime Achievement Award in the summer of 2004, a who’s-who of acclaimed Academy Award-winning dramatic actors took to the stage to honor her, including Jack Nicholson, Diane Keaton, Robert De Niro, and Clint Eastwood, among others. The actor who kicked off the show, however, was more known for comedy than for drama, and to many, he might have seemed an unlikely choice to even be in the building, let alone begin the ceremony. That night Jim Carrey gave one of the funniest, and most heartfelt, opening speeches ever at an AFI Lifetime Achievement event, but he wasn’t just there to provide laughs. Carrey had recently wrapped his newest movie, one that teamed him for the first time with Meryl herself. Yes, one of the most unlikeliest cinematic pairings ever can be seen in Brad Silberling’s Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events.

That is not to say that Carrey isn’t worthy of starring alongside Meryl in a movie. Known for talking out of his ass in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective for much of the mid-90s, he came into his own as a dramatic actor later in the decade in The Truman Show and Man on the Moon. Like Robin Williams before him, Carrey became one of those rare actors who could bounce back and forth between broad comedies and complex dramas with ease. The same year that A Series of Unfortunate Events was released, Carrey gave what many consider his best dramatic performance in Michel Gondry’s fantastic, similarly long-titled film, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. He was at the peak of his career when he chose to play the cartoonish and most certainly villainous Count Olaf in A Series of Unfortunate Events, an opportunity that allowed him to play two scenes off of Meryl, in one of her goofiest performances to date.

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A Series of Unfortunate Events is based on the first three books of Lemony Snicket’s beloved children’s series. The Nickelodeon-produced film, directed by Silberling (Casper) and written by Robert Gordon (Galaxy Quest), tells of three young siblings—Violet (Emily Browning), Klaus (Liam Aiken), and baby Sunny (Kara and Shelby Hoffman)—who become orphans when a fire kills their parents, and then sent to live with the mysterious Count Olaf, an eccentric distant relative only interested in inheriting the kids’ money. When Olaf unsuccessfully tries to have them murdered, the kids momentarily go to stay with their odd uncle (Billy Connolly), then their agoraphobic aunt (Meryl). But Olaf arrives and steals the kids back, leaving their quirky Aunt Josephine to be eaten by leeches (yes, this is one of the few movies that Meryl perishes in, albeit off-screen). In the end, Olaf tries to marry young Violet to get the kids’ money for good.

Many parents were reportedly mortified by this film upon its release, given the dark nature of the story and the vindictive nature of Count Olaf. This is a bad, bad man who makes Carrey’s previous larger-than-life characters The Riddler and The Grinch look like Mother Theresa. The film performed okay but not great at the box office, making a little over 200 million dollars worldwide off a 140 million dollar budget, but it’s not the Tim Burton-like approach that keeps the movie from ever soaring. Carrey does what he can with a juicy villain role, and the art direction and make-up (the latter of which won an Academy Award) are outstanding. The main problem with A Series of Unfortunate Events is that it just never takes off, never fully engages the viewer with a worthwhile story. So much of it comes off flat, with set piece after set piece that slows down the narrative rather than speeds it up. Also, unlike the Harry Potter series, which this film was obviously trying to emulate in some respects, the two main kids come off rather dull.

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Meryl has fun with her small part of Aunt Josephine. She’s in so little of the movie that her role barely registers as a glorified cameo—she has only a few more minutes of screen-time in this than she has in the previous year’s Stuck on You, in which she played herself—but her participation in A Series of Unfortunate Events is interesting for a few reasons. One, she gets a couple of scenes with Carrey, an actor that few would have expected her to ever share screen-time with. Two, it remains the only live-action children’s film she’s ever appeared in; besides voicing characters in The Ant Bully and Fantastic Mr. Fox, and providing narration for other short animated works, she has stuck to adult fare. Three, she has rarely played a character as loony and off-the-wall than the one here. Aunt Josephine looks ridiculous, with her huge ruffled shoulders, tiny glasses, and poofy blonde hair. She is also incredibly stupid, a quality Meryl almost never plays. Whether she’s screaming at the local realtor (an uncredited Jane Lynch) or being seduced by a disguised Count Olaf, Aunt Josephine is a wild, unusual character that many would have pegged someone like Joan Cusack or Helena Bonham Carter to play. But Meryl has a blast, clearly relishing the opportunity to break out of her comfort zone.

Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events will not be remembered as one of Meryl’s best movies. While all the elements are there, particularly an inspired performance by Carrey, the film never comes to life the way the viewer hopes. Most disappointing of all, Meryl is in so little of the movie that if you blink, you’ll miss her. While she didn’t need to be the star, it would have been nice for the screenwriter to incorporate her character a little more into the narrative. Meryl proved in 2004 that she could play supporting characters in two very different kinds of movies and still, with far less screen-time than the movie-star leads, steal the show. While her chilling performance in The Manchurian Candidate is more impressive, Meryl’s comical role in A Series of Unfortunate Events is a wonderfully goofy lark the actress rarely takes.

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My Year With Meryl: The Manchurian Candidate (2004)

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Everyone loves a good villain. Actors often say that it’s boring to play the hero and that it’s a lot more fun to be the bad guy—therefore it’s surprising to note that in more than fifty motion pictures, Meryl has rarely played evil. She plays flawed characters each time out, but rarely the kind of person you run away from when you see her coming toward you. She has some nastiness in her in Death Becomes Her, and plays the boss from Hell in The Devil Wears Prada. She’s horrible to her kids in August: Osage County, and plays a witch in Into the Woods. Arguably, however, the most villainous role that Meryl has ever played is the Lady Macbeth-like Eleanor Shaw in The Manchurian Candidate.

Jonathan Demme’s 2004 remake of the classic 1962 film—the older movie having been directed by John Frankenheimer and starring such powerhouse actors as Frank Sinatra and Janet Leigh—received criticism from movie fans everywhere before it even went into production. Remakes have always been a sore subject for people who love film because almost always, that original film shouldn’t be touched, and doesn’t need to be modernized. Demme had just directed another remake—the critically maligned box office bomb The Truth About Charlie, an update of Charade—and the original Manchurian Candidate is so beloved than many were dumbfounded in how a remake could improve on it. Meryl must have agreed in some respect—to this day, this film remains her only remake—but the bigger-than-life character of Eleanor had to have been too hard to pass up.

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Of course, it didn’t hurt that Demme recruited several terrific actors. Denzel Washington came on board to play the lead Ben Marco, one of many soldiers in the Gulf War who were kidnapped and brainwashed to further the malevolent plans of others. He’s magnetic in the film, as always, although it seems a missed opportunity to not have give one of our finest actors more screen-time with one of our finest actresses. Jeffrey Wright, Meryl’s Angels in America co-star, plays a small but pivotal role as one of the other soldiers, and Jon Voight is effective as a senator who believes Ben’s story and wants the truth to come out. Liev Schreiber was hand-picked by then Paramount Pictures CEO Sherry Lansing to play Eleanor’s son, Raymond Shaw, an ambitious political figure, and Kimberly Elise is strong as Rosie, a potential love interest to Ben who turns out to be more than we thought. Demme even cast newbie actors in small roles who have gone on to do bigger and better things—Vera Farmiga, Pablo Schreiber, Ann Dowd, and Anthony Mackie, to name a few.

And then there’s Meryl, in a supporting role that almost steals the movie. One might think that Angela Lansbury, who played Eleanor Shaw in the 1962 film, would have taken to the idea of an actress of Meryl’s stature giving a new spin on her memorable character, but Lansbury reportedly had displeasure at the idea. Lansbury probably didn’t believe that such a special film, one that earned her an Academy Award nomination and a Golden Globe award, should have been remade, but she also probably knew in her heart that Meryl was going to make the juicy character even harsher, meaner, and more memorable. And, yes, she would have been right. The 2004 remake is serviceable entertainment, a good but not great film, with plenty of suspense and fine acting throughout. It’s Meryl’s harrowing performance that makes the movie stand out.

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She said in an interview that she never saw Eleanor as a villain. Really, how could she? An actor will be one-note on screen if he or she plays a character as purely evil. Every character, good or bad, has a motivation, something he or she believes in, and Meryl viewed Eleanor as someone who is strong and passionate about her wants and needs, especially when they come to her son. She modeled the character after several major political figures at the time (but not Hillary Clinton, according to Meryl), and she watched hours of talking-head political commentary. So reserved and soft-spoken in many of her films at the time (The Hours, in particular), The Manchurian Candidate shows a delectably sinister side to Meryl that is sometimes funny, sometimes sad, but most often chilling.

Her screen-time is limited, but she makes the most of every scene. Her first thirty seconds on screen immediately tell the viewer the kind of woman she is—that layered brown hair, the lime green business suit, those awful pearls hanging around her neck. Her constantly on-the-move body language is feisty and uncompromising, and the way she shoots a glare at her son gives the viewer an immediate sense of unease. Her monologue to a room full of political figures early in the film is the kind of awe-inspiring moment that wins awards. It’s a little calculated to be sure, but it’s also Meryl at her commanding best. Toward the end of the movie, the way she stops Raymond from walking out of the room is probably the scariest Meryl moment ever captured on film, and the disturbing kiss she shares with her son just might be the runner-up. Meryl is such a sweet person in real life, but in The Manchurian Candidate, she’s the opposite, a tyrannical mother who will let nothing and nobody stand in her way.

Meryl won the AFI Lifetime Achievement award in the summer of 2004. It’s an award that had been previously given to people like Bette Davis, Alfred Hitchcock, and John Ford, actors and directors at the end of their career with little else to offer audiences worldwide. Of course, in 2004, Meryl wasn’t near the end at all—she was just getting started, with dozens more movies still to come, starting with The Manchurian Candidate. While the film might not be one of Meryl’s best, and it’s disappointing that she and Washington don’t spend more time on-screen together, she soars, in her most villainous role to date.

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