Hanging Up ostensibly depicts how the members of a dysfunctional family deal with death and their evolving relationships with each other. But just as a family consists of more than a group of individuals, a film needs to be more than just a collection of scenes. Hanging Up is a frustrating account of self-centered and unsympathetic people told via a mismatched patchwork of Kodak Moments that adds up to much less than the sum of its parts.
The Mozell family is an emotional archipelago, connected only by a last name and their cell phones. Dad (Walter Matthau) is 79 years old and in declining health; his wife left more than twenty years ago, but he’s never moved on. An embittered husk of a man, his behavior veers between wry wisecracks and dementia. Eve (Meg Ryan) is the middle daughter who takes most of the responsibility for his care. She’s an annoying Martha Stewart on steroids, running her life by Day-Timer. Even her work life casts her as a martyr – she runs her own company that handles all the nagging administrivia for other peoples’ social functions. Older sister Georgia (Diane Keaton, who also directs) is 3,000 miles away in New York publishing a women’s magazine that bears her name, and younger sister Maddy (Lisa Kudrow) is a semi-successful soaps actress.
Matthau’s real life advancing age and ill health add a touching patina to his performance, but his Dad’s a sullen, bitter man harboring years of pent-up resentment and bile. When Eve tells him that his wife has finally died (it’s a lie, to hopefully give him less to obsess about), he smugly spits out, "I win." He’s a curmudgeon who’s easy to hate. The rest of the family is just as irritating. Ryan has by far the most screen time but exhibits only two emotional states: overwhelmed or crying. Kudrow, who had previously shown such promise in The Opposite of Sex, here reverts back to her ditz mode from Friends. Keaton plays her publishing magnate character as a legend in her own mind. None of the characters are appealing. Each cares only about themselves, and it’s therefore difficult to care very much about any of them.
Director Keaton and screenwriters Nora and Delia Ephron have strangely chosen to assemble the story as an almost random collection of vignettes, many shown in flashback with distracting high-tech titles identifying their setting. It’s clear that some are intended to be poignant, others antic and funny. But with no emotional investment in the characters, the effect is minimal, like haphazardly thumbing through a stranger’s family album without benefit of captions or context.
Without sympathetic characters or a unifying story line, the film has no center, nothing for an audience to invest in – so when it finally reaches what’s intended as its big emotional climax, there isn’t a damp eye in the house. Given the skills of the individuals involved and their knowledge of the source material, choosing to present the Mozell family saga in such sterile and disjointed fashion is surprising. Keaton previously directed Unstrung Heroes, an affecting look at how impending death affects a family. Delia Ephron adapted her semi-autobiographical 1995 novel of the same name, and Nora wrote the scripts for When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless In Seattle.
The film’s title refers to the hang-ups that most families have, and to a larger theme – that people need to disconnect from the stresses that constantly besiege them, the self-imposed challenges they hand themselves, and from loved ones who rashly depart, tragically die, or cruelly refuse to return that love. But, with characters that mostly deserve to be slapped and a fragmented plot, Hanging Up just makes one wish that movie theaters came equipped with caller ID.
– Bob Aulert