Heartburn (1986): Mike Nichols’ Minor Melodrama, Starring Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson

A mildly engaging, bitter-sweet melodrama about marriage on the rocks, “Heartburn” is decently (but no more) acted by Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson, perhaps because both are playing unappealing, self-absorbed characters.

As is well known, Nora Ephron’s novel “Heartburn” is a thinly disguised memoir in which she rehashed of her marriage to the “Washington Post” star reporter Carl Bernstein.

Meryl Streep plays Rachel, a food critic who marries the charismatic columnist Mark (Jack Nicholson) after a whirlwind courtship. Warned that Mark is constitutionally incapable of settling down with any one woman, Rachel gives up her job and moves to Washington DC to help make her marriage work.

When Rachel announces that she’s pregnant, Mark is seemingly joyous. But deep down, Mark chafes at the impending responsibilities of fatherhood, and begins (or rather continues) cheating on her.

Considering it’s a personal film, Ephron’s scenario is disappointingly shallow and verbose. Moreover, it’s never clear what drew Rachel to Mark in the first place: There is not a single scene that conveys real love or passion between them.

Before her own wedding, the petrified Rachel, who had been married before, locks herself in a hotel room, refusing to go out, and one by one, members of her family and friends pay a visit, trying to talk sense into her.

Mike Nichols gives the empty film a glitzy look, surrounding Streep and Nicholson with several friends, among them director Milos Forman and Stockard Channing.

The movie offers minor, incidental rewards, such as the sequence in which Rachel and her friends are robbed at a therapy group (the young, still non-famous Kevin Spacey is the robber, in his film debut).

“How is it possible to live with someone and not know something so fundamental?” Rachel’s friends wonder out loud, while gossiping about the latest scandalous extra-marital affair on Capitol Hill. “It’s possible,” Rachel says, before dumping a pie on Mark’s face, before walking out on him—this time for good. This scene is a cheap shot and a mistake.

The only genuine scenes are between Rachel and her father in New York, where she escapes a number of times from her philandering husband.

Meryl Streep’s real-life daughter, Mamie Gummer (who would become an actress), appears in the film as Rachel’s daughter.


Running time: 109 Minutes.

Directed by Mike Nichols
Screenplay: Nora Ephron
Released: July 25, 1986
DVD: July 6, 2004