Meryl Streep might be too Meryl for Big Little Lies
Where does one start when attempting to analyze a Meryl Streep performance? Do you start with her three Academy Awards? Her three Emmys? The Kennedy Center Honor? Look at me trying to pad the start of this Big Little Lies critique with all of Meryl's accolades. Even I feel intimidated to utter her name with any sort of criticism, but two episodes into Season Two of Big Little Lies, and I can't shake the feeling that perhaps Meryl Streep is too Meryl to play Mary Louise Wright.
That's not to say that she is doing poorly in the role of Mary Louise, but she's not particularly thriving either. Meryl is bigger than Mary Louise. She overshadows her. Streep's doting grandmother character exists only in full Oscar mode—a pensive woman with artificial teeth who speaks primarily in truisms and mini monologues that infer that her character is keen to what's going on. But in execution, Mary Louise is a bit character used to shuffle up the regularity of the original cast.
That fact alone is what makes critiquing her performance so difficult, because to say that Streep's acting is bad would be hilariously misguided. Streep's performance is a tour de force in craftsmanship. In the course of a 30 second block of script, she folds laundry and speaks only through a whisper in a manner that gives you chilling pause.
But as Streep wraps up one of her Episode Two speeches with a sly "Oh, you left that out, too," it's hard not to feel removed from the scene. No one is acting as heartily as Streep is. Every move is a flex, intended or not, and by the time she's finished, you think: Damn, what a pleasure to watch Meryl act. But you're not particularly invested in Mary Louise. You're just excited to see the genius at work. A snack of a performance, perfectly designed to fit into an Emmys nomination reel. Streep isn't a snack though. She's a Michelin star meal.
What makes Big Little Lies a deliciously rich summertime treat is how it wraps the consequential within light-hearted frivolity—the most recent example that comes to mind is Laura Dern's dancing to "It's My House" in a red, satin power suit during a photo shoot. There's a relief in the absurdity. Reese Witherspoon and Dern could practically pen a religious text on that perfect balance. But Mary Louise is a snarky foil that never gets to thrive in full absurdity (with the exception of that blood curdling Episode One scream).
In her long line of work, Streep's weakest performances have always been in films that ask her to do less. Florence Foster Jenkins and Ricki and the Flash come to mind—pictures that never had the gravitas, nor the meat to justify the likes of Streep's presence. The times that Streep has been able to make lighter roles work are when they lend themselves to camp. The Devil Wears Prada and Death Becomes Her—even Mamma Mia!—are packed with enough oomph to warrant Streep's expertise. Mary Louise finds herself in the middle ground: a teacup-sized Season Two creation that exists as a vehicle for a woman who literally shares a birth name with the character. The issue is, Streep's talent only comes in gallons. For now, the role of Mary Louise is simply too inconsequential for a performer like Streep.
In another life, I'd die to see Streep take a swing at the role of Madeline Martha Mackenzie. Somber roles like Celeste Wright were practically invented for the muted gravitas that Streep can bring to the screen. But Mary Louise feels too small to allow this generation's greatest actress to thrive. In its back five episodes, Big Little Lies owes Streep the ability to flex her full range. Let Meryl go full camp or set her free.