Heartburn (1986)

They were obviously trying to do something grand here. The big names parade past as the movie opens: Streep. Nicholson. Nichols. This was high concept adult entertainment back when a major movie event wasn’t Tobey Maguire and a Burger King tie-in.

But Heartburn is a comedy-slash-drama that never matured into the kind of stolid, reliable work that makes for a staple for cable channels such as TNT, much less a classic. It’s largely remembered now, if it all, for being writer-director Nora Ephron’s first contribution to the screen.

So, when a movie such as this, one that failed at the box office, comes out on DVD, the only thing you can do is try to analyze what went wrong, much like an archeologist attempts to try to figure out why a bygone culture disappeared. And in that attempt, you are alone and unaided. The DVD, befitting its C-grade status, has no special features that might help to explain what the director or actors were trying to do. It’s a relic with no markings.

Ephron’s script for Heartburn is based on her novel, in turn based on her life and her tumultuous marriage to former Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein. It comes off as the story of two people who were all wrong for each other and were the two people last to realize it. In the film, Meryl Streep plays Rachel, a New York food writer, and Jack Nicholson is Mark, a Washington columnist. (Although he might as well be a plumber. He never once talks about his job, unlike everyone else in DC.) They meet at a wedding in New York and seem to take some sort of… liking to each other.

And there, just out of the box, lies the movie’s flaw. In a heated urge to avoid exposition of any kind (the movie is about their marriage, right, so why bother with the courtship?), it strenuously avoids giving the viewer any cues as to why the principals are attracted to each other. Mark is a “bad boy,” we’re told early, but there’s no evidence to support this other than Jack’s ever-present leer. (In his career, Nicholson’s public persona has provided certain directors with a regrettable laziness in character development; that’s rarely been truer than here.) We don’t know Rachel at all, except that she says she doesn’t want to get married again and then, within five minutes, remarries.

The movie doesn’t work, from this oddly dispassionate beginning to its anticlimactic end. Simply, you can’t have a movie that chronicles a wife’s disappointments if you’ve no understanding of why the hell she invested in the enterprise in the first place. Absent that, the story carries the emotional weight of a granny victimized by a bad stock tip.

Rachel moves to Washington, something she fears for reasons that are never made clear. It’s a second example of the movie’s frustrating shorthand. We’re to take it on faith that a true New Yorker would object to provincial DC out of hand. (While it might be even be realistic, as a Washingtonian, I’m permitted to resent it.) In a two-by-four of a metaphor, they move into a dilapidated house that will require as much work as their marriage. In an off-kilter scene, Mark explodes in a Nicholsonian rant at the contractor (Yakov Smirnoff, an icon of bad ’80s entertainment if there ever was one, plays the English-challenged contractor. What, Gilbert Gottfried wasn’t available?). Unsurprisingly, for this film, we never get that much emotion out of him again.

Rachel and Mark are happy. They sing songs to each other, for heaven’s sake. She gets pregnant and suffers through a complicated birth. Flashforward a few years and suddenly, Mark’s quiet and unresponsive, always talking about going out to “buy socks.” Rachel, despite her NYC pedigree, is oblivious. Their social circle chairwoman (Catherine O’Hara), who ticks off local sex scandals like the evening’s headlines, keeps dropping rumors that someone they know is sleeping around. (The film’s view of Washington is cinema’s most consistent one: it’s a place of continual Georgetown dinner parties filled with senators and ambassadors.)

The movie is so welded to Rachel’s (and Ephron’s) point of view that we’re not privy to any clues that Mark might be the unfaithful party, even though we know it’s a plot device coming down the track like a Metroliner. So when the news is finally revealed and Rachel is portrayed as a shellshocked victim, it’s difficult to sympathize. That Rachel is seemingly the last person in Washington to know that her husband is a Lothario only makes her seem ridiculous rather than betrayed.

Rachel goes home to her father in New York, who should have been played by Alan King. (Instead, they got Steven Hill to act like Alan King, down to the Panama hat.) She starts put her life together again, getting her food writing job back, which the film repeatedly describes as running recipe contests for readers. (It’s quite the achievement to insult the movie’s heroine like that.) Her editor (Jeff Daniels) hits on her, which again comes as such a shock (to her but not us, because he’s been mooning over her the entire movie) that she’s driven back into therapy. At this point, Nicholson’s been absent from the movie for so long, you’d like to speed-dial him yourself and ask him to come back. Any spark in the film departed with him.

At last, Mark shows up and begs for another chance, someone almost no one in the world would grant, except Rachel. The ending, such at is, essentially repeats the middle of the movie, right up to shots of the plane departing by the Washington Monument. Heartburn traces Rachel’s intellectual progression from being the second smartest person in a bad marriage to the smartest person in a bad marriage, which, really, isn’t much of an accomplishment at all.

If any of this seems slightly familiar, there’s good reason. The plot is strikingly similar to the recent, overpraised Something’s Gotta Give (2003), in which a leering Jack Nicholson seduces and blindsides a famous writer (Diane Keaton). But at least that movie (which was directed by Nancy Meyers, sort of a Nora Ephron for people who thought You’ve Got Mail was too nuanced) gave Keaton’s character at least a shot at revenge. In Heartburn, Ephron apparently took out her anger on the audience instead.