Spot the name Ephron in the opening credits and you pretty much know what to expect. See both Nora and Delia Ephron, plus rom-com habitué Meg Ryan in a starring role and Diane Keaton at the helm, and there is no doubt: you are about to sit through a high-profile example of the solidly commercial slush-fest most commonly described as the "chick flick".
Hanging Up thoroughly lives down to the expectations. A cliché-ridden exploration of how a father's terminal illness affects his three daughters, the movie limps along arthritically, leaning heavily on flashbacks to add depth to a group of characters who are, at best, thumbnail sketches. Keaton's direction is adequate but unimaginative, and the only remotely original element in the film - writing most of the dialogue as telephone conversations - is, ironically, one of the most annoying details. Basing a movie around shrill women shrieking into their mobiles is just not a good idea.
All of the roles are chronically underwritten and the performances correspondingly weak. Ryan's Eve is panicky, neurotic and completely crap in any stressful situation, yet we're expected to believe that this woman, who can't even reverse out of a parking space, is trusted to organise huge gala events. Likewise Kudrow, who has demonstrated her considerable skills as a comic actress, is given very little to work with, resulting in a disappointingly flat performance.
The greatest challenge goes to Matthau, looking unnervingly frail as Lou, the ailing patriarch of the family. He turns in a moving and complex performance as both the beloved and caring parent that his daughters mourn and the foul-mouthed, licentious alcoholic that they have to accept. A successful former screenwriter and unreconstructed hellraiser, Matthau's Lou retains enough of his once formidable intelligence to realise how badly he is deteriorating both mentally and physically. He's not the most likeable of men, fighting against the inevitable ageing process with a vile temper, a foul mouth and a tendency to lash out at whoever is close at hand, usually Eve. However, in Matthau's capable hands, audience sympathy never entirely deserts him.
Hanging Up is not strong on narrative (save for a sub-plot in which Eve totals a doctor's spanking new Mercedes and he inexplicably insists that she talks to his mother about it), focusing instead on the stress and recriminations that start to fly around a close family when one of their number is dying. The obligatory feelgood ending, which sees the girls bonding over Thanksgiving dinner, appears to be mostly an afterthought, as if test audiences didn't respond well to a movie that finished with a death.
A fine performance from Matthau and the bankable combination of Ryan and Kudrow are buried beneath a thick layer of sentiment. Hanging Up is an unfulfilling picture and a disappointment given the talent involved.