DENVER — MOVIES about Hollywood personalities are often depressing. From the original ``A Star is Born'' (William Wellman, 1937) to the noir classic ``Sunset Boulevard'' (Billy Wilder, 1950) to ``Mommie Dearest'' (Frank Perry, 1981), the melodrama steams hot and heavy. Likewise, films about mother-daughter relationships (recently, ``Steel Magnolias'' and ``Stella'') tend to demand two or three hankies to mop up the maudlin sentiments sloshing all over the screen. And drug- or alcohol-addiction movies, from ``The Lost Weekend'' (Billy Wilder, 1945) to ``Days of Wine and Roses'' (Blake Edwards, 1962) to ``Clean and Sober'' (Glenn Gordon Caren, 1988), generally stew in ugly sentiments. ``Postcards from the Edge,'' Mike Nichols's new comedy concerning addiction and a complicated Hollywood mother-daughter relationship, defies the tear-jerker formula. Instead, Nichols and writer Carrie Fisher (who wrote the screenplay from her novel) try for a smart, funny, fresh assessment of mother-and-daughter conflict stressed to the limit by substance abuse and set against the phony glamor of Hollywood.
In large measure, Nichols and Fisher succeed. Sometimes the humor of this rambling, episodic story pitches into the dark - given the subject, dusky humor is absolutely correct. But it never cuts too deeply into the subject of addiction, either. Ultimately, ``Postcards'' forgives and liberates its characters perhaps a trifle too easily to be quite believable.
Still, where it pleases, ``Postcards'' pleases liberally. At least it never, ever resembles a soap opera. And nearly every performance in this picture glitters.
None dazzles more brilliantly than Meryl Streep, who plays the daughter, Suzanne, with flawless comic precision. The furious irony of Fisher's one-liners, Streep tosses off like darts. But they serve to underline the character's childlike vulnerability: Every joke is barbed, but the joker ``breaks just like a little girl.''
Nuances of fleeting emotion that chase each other across her features describe a world of suffering, love, resentment, fear, and hope. Streep proves herself a consummate comedian equipped with all the delicate sensitivity required of the greatest clowns. She also belts out a fabulous country-western tune at one point, which establishes her as a fine singer, as well. It is arguably her most natural performance to date.
And between Streep and Shirley MacLaine, who plays the fading glamourqueen, something in Hollywood film develops: The two women create the essence of familial intimacy. MacLaine, with her sterling technique, is the only one who could upstage Streep's character.
Callous, hypercritical directors, brutish producers, embezzling business managers, and assorted liars and schemers people the Suzanne Vale's life. But always in the foreground is her mother, Doris, a musical-comedy star of the '50s and '60s, whose fading stardom still eclipses her daughter's rising light.
Almost every time we see the two women in the same frame, the eye travels immediately to the older woman. Doris can't seem to help herself. She doesn't mean to overshadow her daughter; she's just naturally competitive. It doesn't help that she drinks, either. Doris lectures her daughter on everything from career choices to men to drug addiction, failing to notice her own dependence on alcohol.
``Postcards'' shows the relation between parental misguidance and the adult offspring's misbehavior. But Nichols and Fisher don't stop there, either. At one point, weeping over the mistakes she made during the making of a picture, Suzanne confides to her stern director (Gene Hackman) something of the agony of her life with mother. But the director has no sympathy. ``So your mother did it to you, and her mother did it to her, and so on back to Eve.'' He's really a father-figure who sees through the self-deceptions. Blame doesn't make reformation possible. Suzanne must end the hell she has manufactured for herself.
The bottom line is always whether one will choose to do well, will choose one's life over the living death of dependency. It is also a very funny scene.
Humor is ``Postcards's'' razor's edge, hacking away at the clich'es. In many ways, ``Postcards'' covers familiar ground. It least satisfies where it skips lightly over the issue of change. The nature of the struggle is never realistically wrestled.
But this movie is about many things that do matter, and it says a lot about the complexity of the mother-daughter bond. It tries so hard to penetrate to the very need for individual triumph over destructive proclivities that it does succeed. The final irony delights us. Once forgiveness replenishes love and the domineering ends, mother may know best - about show-biz, anyway. But every woman still has to find her own way to the right song.