Oohing and Ahhing
A few nights after seeing Hanging Up, unable to sleep and channel-surfing, I came upon an Oprah episode, one of those repeats that air 2 or 3 in the morning. Its format is one of Oprah’s favorites, a celebrity tribute disguised as a kind of cozy girl talk combined with a movie-preview focus group. This time, the celebratory focus was Meg Ryan. The all-women audience had just seen Hanging Up, directed by Diane Keaton, written by Delia and Nora Ephron and based on Delia’s novel, and starring Ryan, Keaton, and Lisa Kudrow as three sisters fighting and uniting while their father is dying. True to the format, studio audience members appeared on camera smiling and clapping, oohing and ahhing, whenever Oprah did her Oprah thing, that is, whenever she complimented Ryan (like, every two minutes), or whenever Keaton, Kudrow, and Billy Crystal via prerecorded videotape gushed over Ryan’s radiant fabulousness. “She is light and love!’’ said Kudrow. Ooh and ahh.
None of this is to criticize the valuable functions served by Oprah the show and Oprah the celebrity: they provide particular models of survival, self-confidence, and aspiration. It’s true that occasionally, they propose or embody ways that women and the show is all about and for women, no doubt about that might resist oppressive mainstream expectations, but for the most part, the prescription seems disturbingly mainstream. You can have this or that body if you adhere to certain (usually fashionable or book-related) diets, wear certain fashions, reproduce certain familiar modes of consumption.
It’s such familiarity and dismissiveness that are troubling about Hanging Up, as well as its stubborn reluctance to suggest anything that might muck up (or even reconsider) such mainstream ideals. It’s a movie designed to make mainstreamers feel good about themselves. Its title refers to those times in life when you need to “disconnect” from the trials and traumas afforded by your family, you know, those times when you realize you can’t be all things for all people and finally accept your limitations and “take some time for yourself.” It’s the worst kind of Oprah episode with a big studio budget. This translates to ridiculously over-designed sets (during holidays, the rooms all look like Martha Stewartland, handsomely and expensively decorated) and annoyingly over-designed characters (even in her sleeping sweatpants, Ryan is luminous, and even when she’s crying, her makeup is exquisite).
Ryan plays Eve, middle daughter of the irascible, alcoholic Hollywood writer, Lou Mozell, now confined to a hospital bed and deteriorating badly, that is, meanly and depressingly. When her sisters are too involved in their careers—narcissistic older sister Georgia (Keaton) publishes a self-titled women’s magazine and crabby baby Maddy (Kudrow) acts on a soap opera—it’s left to Eve to look after dad, even though she has her own job pressures (planning a giant party for Nixon Library), as well as her son Jesse (Jesse James) and husband Joe (Adam Arkin). As if to emphasize the fact that this is a women’s movie, these male characters conveniently disappear from view shortly into the film: Joe goes on a business trip and Jesse is just absent, no explanation. Maybe he’s playing Nintendo in his bedroom.
With no support system in sight, Eve turns to the phone. Ephron says the novel was inspired by her own father’s observation, “I live half my life in the real world and the other half on the phone.” Here, both halves are reduced to a typically Ephronish mishmash of melodrama and comedy. So, the film depicts motivation for Eve’s perpetual near-hysteria in charming montages that show her dealing with serial crises by phone. You see Eve listening to Georgia’s prickly self-absorption and distraction, her own stuffy clients (the Yorba Linda museum administrators seem to travel as a pack), Maddy’s whining, and Lou’s anger, loss of memory, and demands for Chinese food or answers to his questions about the other daughters, whom he seems to prefer.
Of course, this wouldn’t be a father-daughter wrestling-with-the-past movie without flashbacks, and Hanging Up delivers lots of them. These are structured from Eve’s point of view (after Ryan as Eve drifts off into some reverie, eyes glazing, music tinkling) and feature blurry images of the parents, mostly from the torso down, and the three girls looking baffled or frightened by the adults’ fighting. Or she’s dancing with her father, remembering him in that nostalgic rosy movie light, so that her hair kind of glows and his good-guy laughter is muffled.
Hanging Up is trying hard to make the relationship complicated, but it does so in broad, Hollywoodish strokes: Lou’s retro-schticky jokes stand in for Jewishness (none of the daughters even mention it), and all “issues’’ are at least eased by film’s end. The exception is the “issue” of the girls’ mother, who abandoned the family years ago and remains craggy and unforgiving to the end. In a devastating flashback scene, Eve visits Pat (Cloris Leachman), who offers her tea and cake and says that she tried to be a wife and mom, but “It didn’t take.” It’s awful that Pat says this, worse that she says it in close up with a reverse shot to Eve’s trembling lip and brave goodbye. And still worse that Lou continues to pester Eve to call Pat and convince her to come “home.”
It seems like Hanging Up is just one airbrushed disaster after another, the film’s version of “real life.” At first it may seem strange that no one seems capable of adult behavior except Eve, but then you realize that this is precisely the point. Seen from her perspective which is the perspective viewers are expected to adopt, after all no one else can come through for her. She epitomizes the self-helping self-image that women’s magazines and so-called women’s movies encourage: these aren’t so much chick flicks where girls gossip and hang tight as groups against the odds but more like movies-of-the-week, where tragedies make you stronger.
And still, this would be fine except that this narrative presents the strong personality as one that is bland, perky, and reductive, tv-ish, so that a wider audience demographic might imagine themselves into it, consume and approve of it. Eve’s complicated choices appear at times to be gargantuan, but there’s always a neat answer around the corner, sometimes literally. So, for instance, she’s upset when leaving Lou’s hospital, and crashes her SUV into a doctor’s Mercedes in the parking lot. Seeing how rattled she is, Dr. Kunundar (Duke Mooskian) decides Eve needs to meet his mother, Ogmed (Ann Bortolotti), who offers her a “shoulder or an arm for crying on,” and wisely observes that Lou is an “uproar man,” like the Ayatollah from her own country, and advises her to “disconnect.” Eve is touched and tears ensue.
No doubt, by this point it’s a relief to see Eve is comforted in any way, but Ogmed stands out in this sea of upscale-white-women-ness, as if she’s the sitcom neighbor, the guest star who can set things right, the “foreigner” who sees into the heart of U.S. high-speed consumer culture, the all-knowing, all-forgiving Oprah surrogate. While no one would begrudge the “self-empowerment” that viewers glean from such pop-sources, Hanging Up reveals their distressing and guilt-inducing reductiveness: it’s hard to measure yourself against these designer-suited, always-stunningly-outfitted, chocolate-covered-cherry-popping role models, who make prevailing look like a matter of great willpower, great cellphone service, and great cheekbones.