Hanging Up

Directed by Diane Keaton

Feb 16, 2000 at 4:00 am
Even at just 92 minutes, this film feels endless. Intended as a humorous, heartwarming take on dysfunctional family relationships, Hanging Up doesn't work as comedy or drama or anything in between. Given its wealth of talent -- director and co-star Diane Keaton, writers Delia and Nora Ephron, actresses Meg Ryan and Lisa Kudrow -- it proves surprisingly flat and predictable. And the metaphors! Being put on hold, connecting, disconnecting, hanging up. Enough already! It's about as subtle as being bludgeoned with a telephone.

Eve Mozell (Ryan) is a semiresponsible adult with a propensity for plowing into other people's cars while talking on her cell phone. A wife and mother who runs not only an efficient household but also her own business as a party planner, Eve is kindhearted and compassionate but prone to guilt, anxiety and self-doubt. She also serves as sole emotional support and confessor for her aged father, Lou (Walter Matthau), a selfish, spoiled lush.

Eve's sisters have almost nothing to do with their father and are only too happy to leave that task to their peacemaker middle sibling. Oldest sister Georgia (Keaton) is a high-powered, self-absorbed magazine publisher; the baby, Maddy (Kudrow), is a barely successful soap-opera star.

The story opens with Eve taking her father to the hospital for tests. Thereafter, every time the phone rings Eve panics, convinced it's the hospital calling to tell her he's dead. The first time she reacts this way is acceptable, if predictable, but the subsequent six times are just plain annoying.

"Annoying" is the nicest adjective that can be leveled at Lou. The Ephron sisters may have intended him as a lovable old coot, but he is anything but. Although flashbacks suggest he was an involved, devoted father to Eve, it's difficult to reconcile that image with his later onscreen behavior. More child than parent, he is constantly begging for pity and making inappropriate remarks to his kids. He is a creepy presence and a big miscalculation on the writers' part.

Eve's relationship with her sisters -- and with herself -- is as important as her relationship with her father, and, not surprisingly, the three are intertwined. But even though sibling rivalry, low self-esteem, and guilt and conflict over one's parents are easy for just about everyone to identify with, artifice overwhelms reality here. Not even Ryan, always a personable presence onscreen, makes us care.

Keaton's feature-directorial debut was the quirky, lovely Unstrung Heroes, a film that took bizarre characters and an unconventional storyline and turned both into objects of genuine pathos. Hanging Up is designed to have a much broader appeal, but it lacks the depth of feeling and idiosyncratic charm of the earlier film. To a large degree, that's a result of the writing. Suffice it to say that the Ephron sisters have acquitted themselves far more admirably in earlier comedies.

Much of Hanging Up takes place on the telephone, an instrument that allows individuals to keep a safe distance from one another at the same time it permits people to maintain a connection, but the film seems far more interested in milking laughs from repeated shots of the sisters making or answering phone calls than from anything substantive.

It must be said that the friend who accompanied me to the screening is the third child in a family of five sisters, and she definitely connected with some of the sibling interaction. But a good film should draw in audience members who don't share a similar background or living situation. It should make us care about who and what we are seeing onscreen, regardless of how different they might be from our own lives. And that is as true for comedies as it is for dramas.

Opens Feb. 18.