Director/co-star keeps Ephron's cutesy contrivances in check in sibling dramedy 'Hanging Up'
Screenwriter Nora Ephron is the empress of cutesy-poo, yuppie chick flicks ("Sleepless In Seattle," "You've Got Mail"), so I was pretty sure of what I was getting into with "Hanging Up," her latest molded-for-Meg Ryan vehicle.
I went into this estrogen-laced bonding fable -- featuring Ryan, Diane Keaton and Lisa Kudrow as three perfectly coifed, unconsciously competitive sisters -- braced for chronic cuteness and saccharine sentimentality.
What I got was a strongly (if predictably) acted, emotionally sincere and enjoyably capricious comedy-drama about the sibling rivalry and responsibility that follow us into adulthood. A story which rings so true I defy any set of sisters to see it together without glancing sideways half a dozen times and laughing "That's you!"
Keaton is Georgia, the uber-successful, self-absorbed eldest. A consummate four-hundred Manhattanite -- all Donna Karan suits, power pearls and air kisses -- she's the editor-publisher of a fashion magazine she named after herself.
Ryan is Eve, the grounded, reliable middle sister. She's a publicist, a stressed-out mom and an adoring wife (to Adam Arkin from "Chicago Hope") who feels duty-bound to be the default coordinator and peacemaker in matters of family concern.
Kudrow is Maddy, the neurotic (natch) little sis and a soap opera actress who lives her life on tenuous footing.
On the page, the sisters are little more than stereotypes, and the catalyst for bringing them together -- their irascible daddy (Walter Matthau) is dying -- practically assures the cloying, Kleenex-box script would write itself.
But Ephron, whose screenplays turn out all right when someone else directs them ("When Harry Met Sally," "My Blue Heaven"), was too busy to shepherd this film to fruition and thus "Hanging Up" (based on her sister Delia's book) was saved when co-star Keaton stepped behind the camera.
Having gleaned her directing style from the sets of the sardonic Woody Allen (she was in seven of his movies) and the superlative Francis Ford Coppola (she starred in "The Godfather" trilogy), it's Keaton's hand that turns Ephron's pandering platitudes into the kind of detailed, character-driven dramedy that plays out in this surprising picture.
Keaton allows the sisters to become organic and harder to pigeon-hole, and the actresses are free to find their inner irony, leading to candid moments of comedy.
Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as ever, Ryan displays her more earnest side as the put-upon and pushed-around Eve. She's the only real witness to her Alzheimer's-afflicted father's declining health (handled with taste, sympathy and a just a touch of humor), which often manifests itself in his insensitive praise of her older sister and his pining for their mother, who abandoned the family ages ago.
"Hanging Up" is encumbered a bit by all the usual Nora Ephron contrivances (the recurring classic movie reference, the gratuitous musical montage sequences), but director Keaton judiciously keeps them in check.
She doesn't have quite as much luck with the trite and predictable soundtrack of Motown-inspired, feminine empowerment ditties ("Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves," etc.), and the characters' credibility takes a dip in the last reel with an all-too-easy round of apologies and one of those flashback epilogues often slapped on to movies in search of an ending.
Until its slight unraveling as it crosses the finish line, "Hanging Up" draws so well the long distance relationships between these tight-knit sisters (the title comes from all the time they spend on the phone) that we come to like them all -- even as we sympathize with Eve's frustration over her siblings' selfishness -- because they're real and they're funny.