The reigning obsession of every women's magazine – the practical problem of how to "have it all", work, love and family combined – has provided a handy blueprint for many screenwriters. From Baby Boom (1987) and Broadcast News (1987) to Working Girl (1988) and beyond, comedies about career women show them forever in the frantic process of organising meetings, people, public events and private family affairs.
Usually, this Herculean labour happens via the telephone. Hanging Up, scripted by Nora and Delia Ephron, takes this device to a new extreme. Three sisters, Eve (Meg Ryan), Georgia (Diane Keaton) and Maddy (Lisa Kudrow), live their separate, action-packed lives while constantly talking to each other on mobile phones.
Both Georgia and Maddy enjoy a modicum of mass media celebrity. To Eve falls the burden of familial responsibility – particularly when their father, Lou (Walter Matthau), infirm and increasingly senile, is admitted to hospital.
This movie has a bit of everything. It is in part a father-daughter story, with Lou as the irascible but lovable figure who makes life increasingly difficult and teary for Eve. It is also a sibling rivalry story, mainly centred on Eve and Georgia, with Maddy stuck all too clumsily into the periphery. For texture, there are running gags about lifestyle magazines, television soap opera, famous American politicians, and – of course – modern phone etiquette.
Keaton has made two fine, touching dramas, Wildflower (1991) and Unstrung Heroes (1995). As director of this lightweight confection, she again proves herself adept at revealing character through casual, seemingly spontaneous gestures and reactions. In fact, the relatively naturalistic scenes in Hanging Up are its best.
For the most part, however, the film hews close to the comedic successes that Keaton has appeared in, such as The First Wives Club (1996) and the Father of the Bride (1991 and 1995) series. This means there is much mugging, numerous montage scenes cut to songs, and no subject too painful or embarrassing that it cannot be dissolved in an instant into some treacly affirmation.
Hanging Up is undemanding entertainment which slickly delivers on audience expectations. Every now and then it hints at the darker, more melodramatic and confronting movie it could have been. This is especially so when the life advice that Eve receives – "sometimes you just have to disconnect" – is (inadvertently?) juxtaposed with images of the impossible Lou hooked up to a life-support machine.
another Keaton career story: Something's Gotta Give
© Adrian Martin March 2000