Eve Mozell (Ryan) is a semi-responsible adult with a propensity for plowing into other people's cars while talking on her cell phone. (Cell phones are ubiquitous in the world of this film.) A wife and mother who runs not only an efficient household but also her own business as a party planner, Eve is kindhearted and compassionate but also prone to guilt, anxiety and self-doubt. And as if just getting through the day weren't taxing enough, she bears the added burden of serving as sole emotional support and confessor for her aged father, Lou (Walter Matthau), a selfish, spoiled lush.
Eve's sisters have almost nothing to do with their father and are only too happy to leave that task to their peacemaker middle sibling. Older sister Georgia (Keaton) is a high-powered, self-absorbed magazine publisher worshiped by readers of her hip, New York-based woman's magazine, which she self-reverentially christened Georgia. Maddy (Kudrow) is a barely successful soap opera star. The baby of the family, she is well-meaning but clueless and turns to Eve for advice about almost everything.
The story opens with Eve taking her father to the hospital for some tests. Thereafter, every time the phone rings Eve panics, convinced it's the hospital calling to tell her he's dead. The first time she reacts this way is acceptable, if predictable -- the film is filled with such moments of broad humor -- but the subsequent six times are just plain annoying.
Annoying is the nicest adjective that could be leveled at Lou. The Ephron sisters may have intended him as a lovable old coot, but he is anything but. Although flashbacks suggest he was an involved, devoted father to Eve, it's difficult to reconcile that image with his later on-screen behavior. A man more child than parent, he is constantly begging for pity and making inappropriate remarks to his kids. He is a creepy presence and a big miscalculation on the writers' part. He engenders not even a modicum of sympathy from the audience.
Eve's relationship with her sisters, and with herself, is as important as her relationship with her father and, not surprising, the three are intertwined. But while sibling rivalry, low self-esteem, and guilt and conflict over one's parents are easy for just about everyone to identify with, artifice overwhelms reality here. Not even Ryan, always a personable presence on-screen, makes us care. One wonders why Eve isn't in therapy. Let her bore someone else with her problems, not us.
Keaton's feature-directorial debut was the quirky, lovely Unstrung Heroes, a film that took bizarre characters and an unconventional story line and turned both into objects of genuine pathos. Hanging Up is designed to have a much broader appeal, but it lacks the depth of feeling and idiosyncratic charm of the earlier film. To a large degree, that's a result of the writing. Suffice it to say that the Ephron sisters acquitted themselves far more admirably in earlier comedies: You've Got Mail, on which they shared a writing credit, and When Harry Met Sally, which Nora penned alone.
Much of Hanging Up takes place on the telephone, an instrument that allows individuals to keep a safe distance from each other at the same time that it permits people to maintain a connection. Increasingly we live in a cell phone culture, but the film seems far more interested in milking laughs from repeated shots of the sisters making or answering phone calls than from anything substantive.
In the film's defense, it must be said that the friend who accompanied me to the screening is the third child in a family of five sisters, and she definitely connected with some of the sibling interaction. But a good film should draw in audience members who don't share a similar background or living situation. It should make us care about who and what we are seeing on-screen, regardless of how different their lives might be from ours. And that is as true for comedies as it is for dramas.