Reach Out and Touch Your Stuff

Have my secretary call yours, sister: Lisa Kudrow, Meg Ryan, and Diane Keaton in Hanging Up

In the college town of Northfield, Minnesota, in a former bordello-turned-restored hotel called the Archer House, rumor has it that nearly everything in the rooms is secretly for sale. Admire that quilt? Name your price! Fancy the picture on the wall? Take it home with you! Rumor also has it (and this from a credible source) that, kicking around the towers of corporate New York, there exists a pilot for a television show on which everything is--yep--for sale. The ultimate consumer argument for WebTV--click on Rachel's blouse for ordering information!--as well as a counterpoint to TiVo, the VCR-ish device that allows viewers to skip commercials in real time, this spin on The Truman Show is perhaps a more up-front version of the same agenda (less catharsis, more consumption) that regularly drives eye candy like Hanging Up.

In other words, it's possible to watch this movie the way you would browse a catalog--as was the case with Keaton's earlier Unstrung Heroes, in which the interior design was a performance in its own right. Photogenic people run around in darling taupe coats and Land Rovers and hundred-dollar haircuts, clearly so well-fixed financially that all they have to worry about is their own emotional state. Sometimes you just want to watch beautiful people--story be damned!--and if that's what you're after, Meg Ryan and company deliver your full $7.50's worth.

And should you want an actual story line, Hanging Up will get you about 80 percent of the way there. The setup is better than anyone would have a right to expect--a surprisingly sophisticated rendering of three sisters coming to terms with their own estrangement while dealing with the death of their father (Walter Matthau). The fact that these three are in constant contact via cell phone is beside the point, since they're also walking poster children for the notion that more communication isn't necessarily better communication, particularly when it takes place in seconds-long chats that are cut off as quickly as they interrupt. (Along with every other visible indicator of wealth, the filmmakers have gifted the sisters with the newest status symbol: no time to turn around.)

Self-determined martyr and likely codependent Eve (Meg Ryan) is holding down the fort: She checks her father into the hospital, relays health reports to her sisters (Diane Keaton and Lisa Kudrow), answers midnight phone calls, chases down her father when he goes missing, and ignores her husband and son in the process. Complicating the normal issues that arise when a father dies is the fact that her dad has been a rat-bastard souse for most of her life, alternately doting, needy, and mean--and growing senile and dependent has only made matters worse. It speaks to director Keaton's light touch that she neither overplays nor underplays the emotional gravity of the situation, and if we don't know how to think about Eve's father--who's not all bad--it's because the sisters haven't quite decided what they think of him either.

Eve's conundrum has no easy answers or escapes. How do you come to terms with the fact that the imperfect family you have is the only one you get? Or the fact that your father's death means that he'll never change--that, as Eve puts it: "I'm stuck with him. This mess is my father forever and ever"? How do you balance a necessary nostalgia about your father and your childhood with a real person who keeps hurting you?

Good questions, all, but apparently the Ephron sisters--who culled the screenplay from Delia's 1995 semiautobiographical novel--don't know the answers. Neither does Diane Keaton, and neither does the movie. And so, having lobbed themselves a big fat softball that's just begging to be hit out of the park, the forces that be step back, close their eyes, and miss (though they amiably run the bases anyway). In the final reels, you could turn off the sound and just watch the pretty people. All the emotional depth drops out, and there's so little substance to go on that I found myself wondering whether Meg Ryan's clothing choice in the last scene constitutes a significant plot point. (Yes, I believe it does.)

Personally, I was rooting for an entirely different plot twist, one in which Eve not only gets rid of all her phones but lets other people carry their own weight for once. What's strange is that a movie whose title hints at disconnection never once considers the possibility.

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