Writing about a person who is really, really unlikable and still making it interesting enough that people will still keep reading or watching is very difficult. I’d never attempt it. This four-hour HBO mini-series is based on a book that won the Pulitzer Prize. Reading about the book at Wiki, it’s clear that there was much more going on. The cast of characters alone runs to almost one hundred people. And it sounds like Olive might have been a more sympathetic character if I had been able to hear her inner dialogue, which can be done in a book but seldom in a movie. As it stands, though, Olive is one of the most self-centered, nasty, destructive, unpleasant women I have ever spent four hours with. Lee calls her toxic, and I would go along with that.
So why did I stick around? Two words: Frances McDormand. We have to get our knowledge of Olive from the way she plays it, and she does that brilliantly. Even so, it is only in the last half hour that I was able to develop much sympathy for her. She is one of those people who can’t—or won’t—censor herself in any way. She comes right out with the most horrible things she can think of in any situation. Her son is getting married to a woman who is obviously not a very good person, and neither is her family, but most of us would hold our tongues at the wedding, wouldn’t we? You swallow the nasty things you are thinking and try to make the best of it. Not Olive. But she finds large and small ways to wreck the day. When that marriage fails she does the same thing to her son’s overly touchy-feely new wife. Hell, I found her pretty inane, too, but I wouldn’t have moved in and instantly started criticizing the way she was raising her children. The visit to the new family lasts a few days before her son, his attempts to connect with this horrible mother totally exhausted, basically puts her out on the street and tells her to go home and never bother us again. Awful, awful … and yet I watched, just as you would watch a train wreck, unable to look away.
Frances had a lot of help from the director, Lisa Cholodenko, and the screenwriter, Jane Anderson. (Both lesbians, BTW, though that has nothing to do with this story.) Neither of them has worked a lot in the male-dominated environment of Hollywood, but when they get something done, it tends to be good. Between them (separately) they have been responsible for Laurel Canyon, The Kids Are All Right, The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom, and The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio, all terrific little movies. This story is definitely not for everyone, but if you can tolerate sourness in storytelling, take a look.