Postcards from the Edge ★★★½

100 Films by 18 Directors: Mike Nichols

Adapted from Carrie Fisher's semi-autobiographical book of the same name, Postcards from the Edge finds director Mike Nichols in fine form. While not firing on all cylinders like his best works, the film's down-to-earth writing and acting allows the film to feel truly authentic in telling its somewhat true story. Though Fisher claims that the characters of Suzanne Vale (Meryl Streep) and Doris Mann (Shirley MacLaine) are not her and her mother, the similarities are plentiful and either deliberately included to make us feel they are Fisher and Reynolds or Fisher was being less than honest in saying they are not them. While perhaps every scenario did not happen, obviously, the rooting of the characters are in her own experiences and this certainly adds to that aforementioned authenticity, but also allows the film to really find the comedy in every situation with great success.

Yet, no matter how authentic Postcards from the Edge may be to Fisher's experience, Nichols never seems to capture the heart and soul of Suzanne's strife. Compared to his magnum opus, The Graduate, the film lacks the understanding and feeling. Perhaps because I am a graduate so that film really speaks to me, but it has an intimacy. It makes you feel the protagonist's problems and Nichols' nifty staging and tight camera work only further instills this feeling. It is a masterpiece of cinematography, music, framing, staging, and overall direction. Yet, unfortunately, Postcards from the Edge has none of this. It is a film that is shot quite plainly and with limited style by comparison. The closest Nichols comes to this pizzazz is in the staircase sequence between Streep and MacLaine. Putting MacLaine at the top of the stairs with Streep yelling up to her about how she ruined her life, Nichols brilliantly stages the sequence to show the power structure here. Suzanne, at the bottom, looks up to her mother, but resents her all the same. She has put her on a pedestal and Doris has certainly found it comfortable with how she looms and hovers over Suzanne's life from the top of the stairs. Looking down upon her as she tries to climb the stairs to reach her heights, Doris hopes she will stay below her, but also wants her to join her at the top of the mountain. It is this conflicting and misguided anger that really tears these two apart, but also what brings them together.

Thus, it is a shame to see scenes like that be matched with others that are largely straight-forward. It shows the struggle of overcoming addiction. It shows overdosing and the pains of alcoholism. However, it lacks the feeling. It never makes it intimate and ever-present. It is just something that Suzanne remembers constantly and has to try to overcome. The film never makes it all feel real, no matter how authentically written and portrayed the film may be. Fisher's script captures the events, but Nichols' direction never captures the horror of dependency on pills and the struggle to loosen its grip on one's soul. Rather, it makes it all look like something that pops up every once in a while or is referenced by characters. It has all the beats, but lacks the connecting thread of emotion to make it all come together.

Fortunately, the film more than makes up for this with impeccable writing and comedic direction by Nichols. While he does not strike the right chord there, subtle jokes in the background of the movie sets or excellently witty dialogue written by Fisher give the film excellent punch and a constant sense of hilarity. Streep and MacLaine's performances are smart when comedic, but powerful when dramatic. The two are able to bridge the two together without cheapening either. This is not a dark film with some light moments or a light film with some dark moments due to their performances and the strength of the direction and writing. Rather, it is a film about life. Life can knock you down, but it can also make you laugh when you least expect it. Yet, there is a certain rhythmic beauty to its consistency. One month you are up. One you are down. Postcards from the Edge captures this ebb and flow beautifully and it is due to the harmony between the two extremes found by the directing, writing, and acting. All three balance this weight on its shoulders and allows the film to achieve that authenticity that it so badly needed.

While not the best film of Mike Nichols' career, Postcards from the Edge just serves as a great demonstration of Nichols' skill as a director. While he may not capture addiction terrifically, he captures life beautifully in the film and is able to bring Carrie Fisher's script to life in those moments. Smart, witty, and excellently acted, Postcards from the Edge is a film that will make you laugh and will make you cry. In the end, that is all that one can ask from a film and it delivers it consistently with emotions going from one extreme to the other within a single scene. What is more real than that?