on February 3, 2001
The late Walter Matthau ended his long and illustrious career as a film actor in "Hanging Up," playing, appropriately, the dying father of three adult daughters. I wish I could say that the vehicle he chose as his eventual swan song were one truly worthy of his enormous skill and talent. Unfortunately - or rather fortunately - however, this will not be the film for which he is most remembered.
Like so many films, "Hanging Up" starts off with the most noble of intentions. Writer Delia Ephron and director Diane Keaton have attempted to come to terms with the most complex issue facing the aging baby boomer generation: how does one cope with ailing, aging and dying parents while trying to keep a grip on one's own hectic life and personal commitments? And, to make matters more complicated, how does one expend the physical and emotional energy needed for such a task when the parent himself is often irascible, crusty and even downright unlikable in his behavior and nature? And, finally, how does a wounded child ultimately find it in his or her heart to forgive the parent and arrive at that moment of reconciliation so crucial when death finally comes?
When "Hanging Up" focuses on this theme, it achieves moments of point and relevance. All of us can identify with the main character, Eve (Meg Ryan), a sweet, warmhearted young woman who, alone of the three daughters, has unflaggingly dedicated herself to the care of a father who, more often than not, strikes out at her in unappreciative scorn and anger. Wearied and harassed by the enormous burdens of her hectic life and her own inability to say "no" to the people who demand so much from her, Eve emerges as a truly winning and believable character. Unfortunately, her two sisters, Georgia (Diane Keaton), a magazine magnate, and Maddy (Lisa Kudrow), a soap opera actress, come across as shallow, two-dimensional characters whose self-absorption and seeming indifference are (ho hum) really masks for the insecurity and hurt hidden deep beneath their composed surfaces.
Somehow, however, for all its attempts to deal with a truly universal theme, "Hanging Up" never seems quite real in its look and demeanor - it always feels like a movie. Maybe it is the overall slickness of the approach that undermines the seriousness of the drama. The actresses, good though they are, seem somehow too glamorous, their careers too unrepresentative of most of the people in the audience. Another problem is that the film can never seem to settle on an appropriate tone. One moment we find ourselves steeped in searing drama followed the next by a scene of trivial slapstick. Time and again, Ryan is forced to trip over a discarded toy, tangle with an overgrown mutt or bang away at an uncooperative coffee dispenser. Such incidents end up reducing the level of the drama to little more than sitcom status.
"Hanging Up" has, however, been blessed with a wonderful cast. Ryan, Keaton, Kudrow and Matthau pore on the charm and play off each other nicely. (And the film has some devilish fun playing up the physical similarities between Matthau and Richard Nixon). These fine performers obviously had a terrific time making the film together. That is why one regrets the fact, that for all their hard work, the film they left behind is so lacking in credibility and grit. At the end of his career and life, Matthau deserved better.