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Hanging Up

movie review out of 4 Movie Review: Hanging Up

Starring: Lisa Kudrow, Meg Ryan
Director: Diane Keaton
Rated: PG-13
RunTime: 92 Minutes
Release Date: February 2000
Genre: Comedy

*Also starring: Jesse James, Diane Keaton, Cloris Leachman, Walter Matthau, Tracee Ellis Ross, Adam Arkin, Ashley Edner

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

The three sisters in Nora Ephron's novel are nothing like their counterparts in Chekhov's story. Unlike Olga, Masha and Irina, they are not bored, provincial women longing to go to the big city where they can find the excitement so sadly lacking in their lives. These L.A. gals have already arrived: one of the in particular is up to her turned-up nose in activity, another perpetually distracted by attention as the head of a terminally hip, successful magazine, and the third is a TV soap-opera performer in one of those hospital serials. If "Hanging Up" is inspired by any classic, it would take a page from Shakespeare's "King Lear," about the relationship between an over-the-hill monarch and his three daughters--only one of whom exhausts herself to do right by her dad and is largely unappreciated. But if this picture, directed by Diane Keaton, takes a page or two from "Lear," it takes just a title from another of the Bard's plays: "Much Ado About Nothing." Almost torture to sit through its one hundred minutes of banal chatter and counterfeit crises, "Hanging Up" makes us long for the pleasant-enough fluff of Nora Ephron's "You've Got Mail" to supplant the repetitious scenes of cranky-old-dad-shows-ingratitude-to-loving-daughter.

The production notes reveal that when novelist Delia Ephron's father got sick, she was the only one of her family in L.A. and was on the phone constantly with her sisters about him--and on the phone as well with her father. "I live half my life in the real world and half on the telephone" became the statement around which the novel, and now the movie, revolve.

If you've ever been baffled to see the intensity with which people use their cell phones--while walking on the street, in restaurants, shopping at the supermarket, and even to the extreme annoyance of their neighbors in the Broadway theater--you can sense the addiction that the three women and one elderly man in this story possess. Since the three women are what we would today call smart, they are highly verbal, spending a good deal of their energy both at work and at leisure vocalizing in person or especially on the phone. The trouble is that while the daily conversations of these people must be awfully absorbing to them, they have little interest for the audience, who must sit through the endless banter and decide that eavesdropping on these people is about as interesting as listening in to a woman at the greengrocer interrogating her husband via her cellphone about what he would like her to pick up for their dinner.

Meg Ryan takes center stage in the comedy-drama which is light on laughs and oddly dry-eyed in its pathos. As the owner of a business that coordinates conventions--such as the one depicted in the Nixon library--she has a difficult time balancing home, work, and extended family. With a bratty 12-year-old kid, Jesse (Jesse James), who laughs at his mother with a donkey's bray, a handsome husband who has little to do in this story but throw his father-in-law out of their home, and a curmudgeonly father who is hospitalized and supposedly dying (though we haven't the foggiest idea of what), this middle sister is a modern representative of the liberated woman who tries to have it all. Her dad, Lou (Walter Matthau), rewards her constant attention by telling her that her mother wanted to "throw her back" after she was born. Eve must put up with her dad's adolescent attempts at humor while he is being wheeled about, jokes about John Wayne's allegedly small pecker ("that's why he carried those guns"), about the location of the mini-bar in his hospital room, about how he might go to bed "but not with you" (to a middle- aged nurse). Supposedly Lou went nuts when his wife, Pat (Cloris Leachman), walked out on him ten years earlier, but given the story's lack of development, we don't know whether she left because he was looney or whether he became unbalanced because she left. Matthau wears yet another of his outrageous rugs for the role, while cameraman Howard Atherton hones in on his face to highlight the man's wrinkles.

The frequent flashbacks to happier, more carefree times in this family are generic and unenlightening. When Georgia (Diane Keaton), the oldest and most successful and much envied sister, gives a talk before a roomful of adoring women, we don't know whether Ephron means to satirize the currently fashionable Cosmopolitan-type periodicals or to praise them. Nor do attempts work at parodying Nixon about tapes in his library available for the visitor to click into to find what the ex- president considered his favorite food and other important issues. We're left with a troupe of experienced, fine actors bereft of anything of significance to say, but they're the last to know this as they jabber and banter and jest and rail at one another. Too bad the Ephrons do not display half the talent of Arthur Miller who knew how to write a story about siblings who were not so concerned with hanging up as they were with their own hangups. In Miller's "The Price"--currently in a Broadway revival--two brothers who get together after disposing of their late father's belongings, deal with their jealousy, their hatred, their corrosive and unacknowledged anger, and their resentment against a selfish, child-devouring father. The first is a policeman who sacrificed his education and probably career as a scientist to care for his invalid father. The other is an eminent surgeon who walked out on the demands of family to concentrate on his personal ambition. This work, unlike "Hanging Up," examines the dilemma with compassion, humor and insight--all of which are missing from this movie.

Look inside any high-school classroom during homeroom period and observe which kids are doing the most jabbering. It's the dull ones. They say that empty vessels make the most noise. The vessels in "Hanging Up" are particularly sharp women: ironically, they make quite a bit of noise both on the phone and in person and yet they say nothing--as empty as the underwritten script in this meandering movie. Pick up the video some months from now and tune into it next time you're sleepless in Seattle.

Copyright 2000 Harvey Karten

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