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by: Scott Renshaw

That irritating sound you'll be hearing for the first 20 minutes of Hanging Up -- more or less non-stop-- is the ringing of phones. They ring on walls, in cars, in purses and on fax lines. They ring for calls from business associates and family members. Then they ring again on call waiting. In the context of the film, you could say the ringing phones represent the distractions that keep us from focusing on what really matters. Or maybe they stand for the way we can talk and talk and talk without ever really communicating. And in the context of the film, either message would be painfully ironic. Hanging Up is an extruciatingly awkward piece of film storytelling -- a movie full of distractions from what really matters, a movie that talks and talks and talks without ever really communicating.

From the film's marketing campaign, you'd probably expect Hanging Up to be the story of the semi-dysfunctional Mozell family: aging and ailing former Hollywood screenwriter Lou (Walter Matthau) and his daughters Georgia (Diane Keaton), Evie (Meg Ryan) and Maddy (Lisa Kudrow). In fact, it's essentially the story of Evie, a woman juggling responsibility for her business, her own family and the ever-more-dependent Lou. While Georgia publishes a glossy women's magazine in New York and Maddy works as a soap opera actress, Evie is left with the growing burden of an alcoholic father she has cared for since her mother left.

The bulk of the film finds Evie becoming ever more flustered as she prepares a women's business conference for her event planning company, worries that Lou is going to die at any moment, frets over whether her latest fender-bender can be settled without going through her insurance and tries to get some support from Maddy and Georgia. It's all about Evie, and Ryan does her perky, weepy best trying to make Evie's plight matter. Too bad Hanging Up is such a muddle of shifting tones and undeveloped relationships that Ryan's manic performance reeks less of frustration over her life than desperation over the script. Every scene feels aborted in mid-thought, leaving little but the spectre of Matthau trying to give some hammy charm to a character that's alternately eccentric-annoying and creepy-annoying.

Eventually, perhaps out of sheer boredom with Evie's story, Hanging Up turns to the interaction between the three sisters once they're finally brought together by Lou's most recent turn for the worse. By that time it's far too late to make that interaction convincing or endearing, since both Keaton and Kudrow are playing gross caricatures of self-absorption. Georgia and Maddy exist basically as props for Evie's self-realization, appearing only when Evie needs to become aware that she's the only one working at preserving family relationships. It's inevitable, then, that every moment between the sisters feels false, every grating attempt at bickering, bittersweet reconciliation or playful kitchen food-fighting serving as a reminder that you were expecting a movie about the ties that bind. What you get instead is a movie about people who all signed up to be in the same movie.

There are so many things wrong with Hanging Up -- the stilted script by Delia and Nora Ephron, the wretched editing, Matthau's depressing shtick -- that it seems absurd to pick out one moment of epic miscalculation. Nevertheless, that dubious distinction goes to a flashback scene between Evie and her estranged mother (Cloris Leachman). Evie tracks her mother down several years after she has left the family, and finds a less than enthusiastic welcome. It's a pivotal moment, one that will explain any number of issues in Evie's life ... and it's dispatched in a matter of seconds, with Leachman delivering about a half-dozen lines of dialogue. That sort of incomplete, abrupt storytelling defines Hanging Up, a film that becomes such


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