[Screen It]

(2000) (Meg Ryan, Diane Keaton) (PG-13)

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Drama/Comedy: Three sisters try to cope with the others' reactions to their single father's failing health and confused state of mind.
Eve (MEG RYAN), Georgia (DIANE KEATON) and Maddy (LISA KUDROW) are three adult women who, despite being sisters, are distinctly different and don't always get along that well. Georgia, the oldest, is busy running her self-titled magazine that's celebrating its fifth anniversary. Maddy, the youngest, is an actress on a soap opera.

Meanwhile, Eve, the middle child, finds herself being the one who has to care for their 79-year-old father, Lou (WALTER MATTHAU), despite having a career of her own as an event planner, not to mention a husband, Joe (ADAM ARKIN), and son, Jesse (JESSE JAMES). A cantankerous veteran of the entertainment business, Lou has just been hospitalized for a week of tests and observation due to his progressively failing health and increasing forgetfulness.

While Georgia and Maddy care about their father, they'd rather Eve deal with the day-to-day stress of caring for him. Of course, that doesn't sit well with her, particularly since she worries that the next phone call will probably be bad news about him, and that he continually asks to see their estranged mother, Pat (CLORIS LEACHMAN), who wants nothing to do with her former family.

As the sisters stay in touch via phone and Eve gets some moral support from a local doctor, Omar Kunundar (DUKE MOOSEKIAN) and his wise mother, Ogmed Kunundar (ANN BORTOLOTTI), they recall times gone by while hoping and waiting to see if their father will be okay.

OUR TAKE: 4.5 out of 10
Time has a funny and profound way of equalizing things. People and fads that were once hot are inevitably replaced by new ones and are soon forgotten, while events that once seemed important or traumatic similarly fade and lose their significance as the days, months and years pass.

Probably the greatest equalization is in the parent child relationship. While parents obviously care and tend for their helpless children in the early years of their lives, as time passes and notwithstanding any unexpected occurrences along the way, it's that child or children who suddenly find themselves the caregivers, taking care of their parents who often become more childlike and/or helpless as they age.

Such a sudden role reversal, as inevitable as anything else that time touches, elicits a plethora of emotions ranging from sadness and guilt to fond memories and even some laughs. Like it or not, it will happen to most of us.

That's the underlying theme of "Hanging Up," a far more serious film than the studio's comical ads suggest, about a family's reaction to such a turn of events. Written by real-life sisters Delia and Nora Ephron (based on the novel by the former) and directed by Diane Keaton (who returns to the director's chair for just the second time after "Unstrung Heroes"), the film is a surprisingly mawkish and forced affair.

While there are a few laughs to be had every once in a while and the film benefits from its stellar cast, for the most part it just doesn't work that well. That's somewhat surprising considering the usually smart writing from the Ephron sisters and the fact that Nora has three screenwriting Oscar nominations to her name.

Although there have been some misfires in their portfolio (such as "Mixed Nuts"), most of their work, including "Sleepless in Seattle," "When Harry Met Sally" and the recent "You've Got Mail," usually feature cleverly constructed characters, amusing situations and strong dialogue. Unfortunately, that can't really be said about this effort.

Beyond the prominent middle sister character played by Meg Ryan, the rest of the characters aren't really much more than caricatures of typical family members. The comedy element is also rather weak - not even considering that the subject matter (a family deals with their progressively sick and senile father) certainly isn't that inherently funny, no matter the old "find something humorous in any situation" motto.

Most of the "comedy" is rather forced, and unless you find some sort of delight in strained slapstick material - such as Meg Ryan falling out of bed to answer the phone - or uninspired observational and/or situational humor, you'll be hard pressed to cough up many laughs. Even the moments where there should be a flashing sign indicating that a "witty but touching" exchange is about to take place - such as Eve trying to compare Hondas and Lamborghinis to her and Maddy vs. Georgia - fall flat.

The solid element the film has going for it is its great cast, and the four central performers certainly make the film easy enough to watch, despite its other problems. The always-adorable Meg Ryan ("You've Got Mail," "Sleepless in Seattle") does a decent job with her role - notwithstanding some of the dumb things she's asked to do - and certainly creates a sympathetic character.

While Diane Keaton ("Annie Hall," "The First Wives Club") and Lisa Kudrow ("The Opposite of Sex," TV's "Friends") are talented actress with distinctive acting styles, they can't really do much with their shallowly constructed and developed characters. Meanwhile, the incomparable Walter Matthau ("The Sunshine Boys," the "Grumpy Old Men" films) does a good job of portraying an older man who tries to come to grips with progressively going senile.

Although the film isn't horrible by any means, it never manages to rise above mediocrity in telling its story. While some viewers at our screening laughed at various times during the film, far more sat in stony silence while witnessing a mixture of forced sentimentality and comedy that just didn't work that well.

Despite the fact that the great cast makes up for some of those failings, the effect of spending time with this picture equalizes their presence and efforts. As such, many viewers will probably want to take the film's title as advice and disconnect long before this call is over. We give "Hanging Up" a 4.5 out of 10.

Reviewed February 11, 2000 / Posted February 18, 2000

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