Hanging Up: Melodrama Starring Meg Ryan, Diane Keaton, Lisa Kudrow

Three of Hollywood’s most beautiful and gifted actresses, Meg Ryan, Diane Keaton, and Lisa Kudrow are vastly underutilized in Hanging Up, a shamelessly sappy family meller that bears the schmaltzy sensibility of Nora Ephron, pic’s producer and co-scripter, rather than that of Diane Keaton, its nominal director.

A throwback to Hollywood’s serio-comedies about love and rivalry among three disparate sisters brought together when their old but still flamboyant dad is hospitalized, it’s a film that, except for its glorious A-cast, fits well the small screen in scope, ambition, and message. Name cast, which, along with aforementioned thesps, also includes Walter Matthau in a substantial part and Cloris Leachman in a tiny one, and Columbia’s aggressive marketing campaign, almost guarantee a strong opening weekend, though mixed-to-negative reviews and lukewarm word-of-mouth should result in moderate, below expectations B.O.

In all of her films, whether they’re based on original scripts (Sleepless in Seattle), remakes of French farces (Mixed Nuts), derivative imitations of yesteryear’s chestnuts (You’ve Got Mail), Capraesque tributes (Michael), writer-director Ephron has basically made the same kind of harmless, innocuous entertainment, one that’s star-driven, predictably soft and utterly undemanding of its viewers. It’s too bad that the talented and charming Ryan has become the quintessential Ephron heroine for, as she has proven in other vehicles (Courage Under Fire, When a Man Loves a Woman), her range as is far wider than what she’s asked to display in a typical Ephron confection.

The film’s poster and ad campaign, which unfairly cashes in on the far superior and wittier The First Wives Club (which also starred Keaton) are deceptive, for they suggest that the trio of women play leading, co-starring roles. In actuality, though, Ryan is the sole protagonist, Eve, the middle sister who’s still flooded with memories of being daddy’s girl but now has matured into a responsible woman who, unlike her self-absorbed siblings, is totally committed to her father’s welfare.

The first act is irritatingly dominated by endless phone conversations among the sisters–cell phone is one of the few icons that gives this sentimental pic a contempo feel. As story begins, Eve takes her irascible, patriarch father, Lou (Matthau), to the hospital for a series of tests related to his confusions and disorientations. Seated on a wheelchair, the still dynamic father carries with him posters of John Wayne–and telling stories of how despite having a presumably small pecker, the Duke was a he-man.

It turns out that daddy’s real problem is his failure to acknowledge that his wife Pat (Leachman) has left him. Earlier, under pressure from her father, Eve visits her mom, now residing in Big Bear. In what’s one of the film’s feeblest scenes, Leachman gets to deliver an embarrassingly “feminist” speech of how she was never meant to be a mother!

Back home, Eve enjoys a loving marriage with her infinitely patient husband Joe (Adam Arkin) and good rapport with her sensitive boy, Jesse (Jesse James). A car accident in a parking lot, caused by–what else–careless talk on her cell, introduces Eve to Omar (Duke Moosekian), who later shows up as a doctor where Lou is hospitalized, and to his Iranian mother, Ogmed (Ann Bortolotti), who delivers pic’s central message–how sometimes it’s important to disconnect from parents, in a tearful scene.

Narrowly defined, Eve’s sisters are one-dimensional. Georgia (Keaton), the eldest and most elegant, vies for a spot on the Power List as editor-in-chief in her self-titled women’s magazine, Georgia. Youngest sis, Maddy (Kudrow), the most spontaneous and least mature, is a woman who solemnly declares one day that her life’s vocation is acting, and five years later after a disappointing career as a soap actress, just as solemnly announces that she is quitting acting. Whether consciously or not, Maddy’s part recalls Dianne Wiest’s role in Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters, also about three sisters in the holiday season.

Story is framed by two flashbacks. In the first, set in Christmas 1988, the sists are shocked to find their dad in bed with an old acquaintance, though sequence changes tone when he confesses that he’s unable to live without their mom. The second, in Halloween 1993, relates a bad incident, when dad’s offensive conduct interrupts Jesse’s birthday party, scaring the kids away and causing a friction between Eve and her hubby who vows never again to let Lou enter their house.

Watching this mushy melodrama, occasionally sprinkled with shards of humor (but no wit or subtlety), inevitably encourages viewers to think of its stars’ better vehicles. Ryan, who could have played this role in her sleep, gets to deliver some foul lines and four-letter words that recall her famous scene in the far superior When Harry Met Sally….Matthau recycles elements of his roles in The Odd Couple and the Grumpy Old Men movies. Theatrical entrances by Keaton, who still sports one of Hollywood’s shapeliest pair of legs, bring back fond memories of similar passages in Baby Boom and other comedies. In the least developed part, Kudrow delivers one-liners in a manner that exhibits her delicious comic timing shown to much better advantage in The Opposite of Sex.

Keaton, who previously made the equally schmaltzy but more deftly observed meller, Unstrung Heroes, is an efficient helmer–pic would have been much worse if Ephron directed–here responsible for overseeing a glossy, easy-to-digest entertaining package, with good production values across the board, particularly Bobbie Read’s alluring costumes that display the stars at their most glamorous.

Choice of music, like production’s other aspects, is obvious. The Xmas sequence is introduced with Judy Garland’s fabulously emotional rendition of Meet Me in St. Louis’s “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” Keaton’s sequences as editor with Steve Tyrell’s “Georgia on My Mind,” and so on.

A Capracorn holiday movie, Hanging Up celebrates forgiveness and family love, concluding on a fake farcical note with a sisterly Thanksgiving reunion. Indeed, commercial prospects of pic, which was originally skeded for Xmas 1999 release, will further suffer from its push back to the spring.