Friday February 18, 2000
"Hanging Up" has all the ingredients of a success--a stellar cast, a promising premise, a strong production team--but nothing comes together in satisfying fashion.
Delia and Nora Ephron's script, adapted from Delia's novel, is underdeveloped and fails to mesh serious concerns with comedy. Director and co-star Diane Keaton is never able to achieve a mastery of shifting tones essential for the film to seem credible rather than contrived. It comes off synthetic despite the all-too-real issues it raises.
Delia and Nora are the daughters of the highly successful playwriting and screenwriting team Henry and Phoebe Ephron, and Delia has said that her novel drew from her experience of being the only one of four sisters in Los Angeles during her father's final years. She took inspiration for her book from her father's remark, "I live half my life in the real world and half on the telephone."
In "Hanging Up," Walter Matthau's irascible Lou Mozell, hospitalized and with his mind wandering, lives practically all his life on the phone to his middle daughter Eve (Meg Ryan), who in turn is constantly on the phone with her self-absorbed sisters, Georgia (Keaton), a high-powered New York-based editor in chief of her own women's magazine, and Maddy (Lisa Kudrow), a soap opera actress chronically upset that her sisters never watch her show.
The advent of the cell phone has, in fact, turned the charming but eternally frazzled Eve's life into chaos, as she struggles to be a wife and mother while working as a party planner. She's the responsible sister who lets everyone walk all over her, her often-absent and frequently exasperated husband (Adam Arkin) is wont to point out. She has yet to acknowledge that she is a martyr, in a way her own worst enemy.
Matthau can do irascibility like no one else, and he can show us the humor in it when it's pushed to outrageous extremes. Although Lou's decline triggers in Eve flashes of memories when her father was playful and loving with her when she was a small child, he has clearly been a cruel, nasty man for a very long while, his years of success long behind him. He craves attention, appeals for it shamelessly from Eve, only to turn on her savagely.
In one recent flashback we see a drunken Lou wreck his little grandson's birthday party, but we never see how the rightly enraged Eve reconnects with him. In a brief, chilling scene Eve visits her long-estranged mother (Cloris Leachman) who walked out on her family ages ago; her explanation is that she just never took to motherhood. But what of her feelings for Lou, past or present?
Furthermore, we don't get to see enough of Georgia and Maddy, who are, in effect, caricatures until the last reel demands they do 180-degree turnarounds. Actresses of the talent and skill of Keaton and Kudrow might have pulled this off if the film had any sense of irony about the situation; the sisters are only able to start bonding once their impossible father is well on his way to his reward.
In any event, the Ephrons and Keaton are unable to make a convincing serious comedy of Eve's predicament when her father and her sisters are so dreadful for so much of the time. Not helping matters is that the film takes place in the glossy universe of Hollywood mainstream movies when a grittier feel, a sharper edge, seem to have been in order. We gather that Arkin's Joe is a correspondent for National Public Radio, so unless he has inherited a fortune unbeknownst to us, we are puzzled as to how he and Eve can live in a totally fabulous 1920s Spanish-style estate, the kind favored by extravagant silent stars. (If Eve and Joe can afford to live so grandly, why doesn't Eve hire competent people to help with her staggering responsibilities?)
While Ryan, Keaton, Kudrow and Matthau certainly have their moments, there's not nearly enough of them for "Hanging Up" to add up to much. This formidable quartet may constitute enough star power to open "Hanging Up," but it's hard to imagine that it will stick around for very long.
Hanging Up, 2000. PG-13, for language and some sex-related material. A Columbia Pictures presentation. Director Diane Keaton. Producers Nora Ephron, Laurence Mark. Executive producers Delia Ephron, Bill Robinson. Screenplay Delia Ephron & Nora Ephron; based on the book by Delia Ephron. Cinematographer Howard Atherton. Editor Julie Monroe. Music David Hirschfelder. Costumes Bobbie Read. Production designer Waldemar Kalinowski. Art director Troy Sizemore. Set decorator Florence Fellman. Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes. Meg Ryan as Eve. Diane Keaton as Georgia. Lisa Kudrow as Maddy. Walther Matthau as Lou.