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Hang Up on This Nuisance Call

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 18, 2000


    'Hanging Up' Lisa Kudrow, Meg Ryan and Diane Keaton in "Hanging Up." (Columbia-Tristar)
If there is a hell for bad screenwriters – I mean the ones who pander to the worst and cheesiest of human emotions and take pride in their work – then Nora and Delia Ephron should book that one-way trip across the River Styx right now.

"Hanging Up," the Ephron sisters' adaptation of Delia's 1995 autobiographical novel, is the moviegoing equivalent of reading Robert James Waller. The only difference is, you can laugh out loud at Waller's "Slow Waltz in Cedar Bend." There's no such relief watching "Hanging Up."

Ten minutes into it, you're making low moans. Fifteen minutes into it, you have plucked out all of your hair. Gone! You're bald, you're unhappy, and the movie's only just begun.

The players: Meg Ryan, Diane Keaton and Lisa Kudrow as a shameless trio of loving, laughing, crying, hugging sisters. Also: Walter Matthau as their nasty, cantankerous father, Lou.

Ryan is Eve, "the One with the Heart," who keeps getting into fender benders.

"I'm so sorry!" she tells a bewildered doctor after backing into his Mercedes. "Thank you so much for not screaming." It's her third little accident this year! Her husband (Adam Arkin) rolls his eyes when she tells him the news. So does her son Jesse (Jesse James). That Mom!

Keaton is Georgia, a glossy magazine editor and "the Successful One," who never has time for anyone but herself. Her magazine is called Georgia. She looks great all the time. Keaton is also the director.

Kudrow is Maddy, "the Ignored One," who's a soap opera actress and wants to be recognized. She's the funniest performer of the three. Which may explain why she has so little screen time.

Their story begins when Lou is hospitalized for a stroke. Eve, the only one who really cares, takes this personally. Her father's condition becomes a full-time preoccupation. For most of the movie – and I think this is meant to be poignantly funny – she keeps panicking and yelling "Oh, he's dead!" whenever the phone rings.

The phone rings all the time.

Lou's dementia worsens. Sometimes he seems coherent. But more often, he rants and raves. Georgia keeps arms-length tabs on Lou's progress. And Maddy is busy with her soap series. But Eve comes to her father's bedside whenever she's not busy yelling "He's dead!" at home.

Lou's condition causes Eve to have many flashbacks, featuring her sisters and the younger Lou, who looks nothing like Walter Matthau.

In one memory, Lou – now divorced from his wife (Cloris Leachman) – spoils Jesse's birthday party with drunken belligerence. In another, the three sisters interrupt him in flagrante delicto with a dental hygienist. Of course, he's a scurrilous character. But it's clear to me that Lou's actions are a cry for help. He wants out of this Ephron movie.

As the sisters spend more time with one another, long-standing resentments reemerge. But the strife portends a series of predictable bonding sessions featuring tears, giggles and – in an emotionally climactic scene – the tossing of white flour at each other.

Although Nora Ephron's "When Harry Met Sally . . ." should be acknowledged, it is her collaborations with sister Delia that are grounds for the eternal damnation I recommend. "Hanging Up," which is the third Ephron-Ephron collaboration (after twin horrors "My Life" and "Mixed Nuts"), is essentially an extended cutesy session. Ryan plies her bubbliness, Kudrow does that quizzical, cocked-head shtick, and Keaton indulges in her trademark, post-Annie Hall mannerisms. Clearly, they're having a blast with all that flour and all that hugging, but, alas, the fun is only with each other.

HANGING UP (PG-13) – Contains sexual situations and strong language.

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company


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