Even apparently happy families are often unhappy in their own ways, and beneath the Martha Stewart-like perfection of the Gulden household lies a hornet's nest of complicated, conflicting desires, suppressed anger and fragile alliances. George Gulden (William Hurt) is a professor of literature and a critically acclaimed academic essayist, adored by his ambitious daughter Ellen (Renee Zellweger), a journalist, and resented by his son Brian (Tom Everett Scott), whose gifts are athletic rather than intellectual. Kate (Meryl Streep) is the happy homemaker they all treat with just a touch of condescension until she becomes ill with cancer. George browbeats Ellen into coming home to care for her mother -- God forbid that he should scale back his class load, or that Brian should leave the classes he's secretly flunking -- and Ellen inevitably comes to realize that it's Kate, her drive, intelligence and considerable organizational skills channeled into child-rearing, running a household and caring for her difficult, selfish husband, who has permitted her family to pursue their own lives and think they're more accomplished than she. There are no particularly new insights here, but many painfully sharp observations about the way children and parents see each other through distorted webs of expectation and assumptions formed somewhere in the distant past. It's all told in flashback as Ellen is questioned about Kate's death, because small-town gossip has raised the specter of assisted suicide. The framing story is pointless and almost insulting, even though it's part of former New York Times columnist Anna Quindlen's novel. In fact, it's been scaled back for the film, which rests firmly on the shoulders of Streep and, to a lesser degree, Zellweger. Their performances, and Carl Franklin's understated direction keep the tears and life-affirming revelations from congealing into chicken shmaltz for the soul.