How family members can get disconnected; Review: Like a busy signal, only intermittent moments of genuine emotion beep, beep, beep through 'Hanging Up.'


Meg Ryan is the cute-as-a-button center of "Hanging Up," a movie that, like most of Ryan's movies, ends up being more about her hair than anything else.

As Eve, the surrogate mother in a wackily dysfunctional show-biz family, Ryan's emotional state is eloquently expressed by the condition of her famously tousled hair. The more crazed and confused she gets, the more adorably messy that hair becomes. You find yourself wondering, not what her character is feeling but what products she uses to get her hair to do that. We're talking about serious, don't-try-this-at-home hair here.

When it isn't her hair, it's Ryan's mugging and tomboyish antics that are the focus of attention, which is presumably why Delia and Nora Ephron, who wrote "Hanging Up" from Delia's novel, have found her to be such a suitable leading lady for Ephron films. (Ryan also starred in "When Harry Met Sally," "Sleepless in Seattle" and "You've Got Mail," all written by Nora, the last directed by her and co-written with Delia.) Her dithering is perfectly suited to movies that are long on surface appeal and short on emotional depth.

In "Hanging Up," Diane Keaton directs, with uneven results; this is a movie that cares much more about finding just the right shade of calla lily than about silly things like showing microphone booms hanging over the heads of its actors. But Keaton, whose last directorial effort was the warm and quirky "Unstrung Heroes," manages to find moments of genuine emotion in "Hanging Up," most often in Walter Matthau's funny and moving performance as Eve's cantankerous father.

In a story about family, forgiving and letting go, Matthau provides the perfect embodiment of all that is infuriating, confusing and confoundingly lovable in an aging parent.

Matthau plays Lou Mozell, a retired screenwriter who has never quite come to terms with the fact that his wife left him and his three daughters. Eve, the dependable and quiet middle child, quickly slipped into the breach, becoming a proxy wife to Lou and a proxy mother to the baby of the family, Maddy (Lisa Kudrow). Meanwhile the eldest daughter, Georgia (Keaton), was too busy becoming a media mogul to be any kind of proxy to Eve.

"Hanging Up" begins as Eve, now running a party planner business in Los Angeles, is on her way to check Lou into the hospital. Convinced that he's dying, she calls Maddy and Georgia, who see the episode as just one of his latest dramas. Throughout the rest of the movie, Eve tries to keep it together -- "it" being Lou, her business, her car, her family and at one point Maddy's enormous, infirm dog -- while keeping her sisters posted via cell phone.

Like "You've Got Mail," "Hanging Up" uses the accouterments of modern technology to explore how attenuated human relationships have become. And like the earlier film, it doesn't go deeply into that subject, preferring to use cell phones as props to bumble, smash, punch and, in one case, teethe at a manic pace. Similarly, the scenes with Eve and her sisters conferring -- on the phone or in person -- unfold at a hysterical pitch that quickly becomes tiring. It's as if attractive, affluent white women had only two volumes: "Off" and "Shrieking."

But when it's just Eve alone with her father, or alone with her memories of him, "Hanging Up" actually achieves some authenticity. The flashbacks are especially effective here, in large part thanks to Charles Matthau, whose portrayal of his father's character as a young man has an eerie resonance. Whether it's a fleeting glimpse of Eve pushing her father into the swimming pool or a shot of two tiny feet on top of two huge ones, the pull is inescapable.

These intermittent moments provide flashes of sweet recognition in what is otherwise a jumble of terribly tasteful chaos.

'Hanging Up'

Starring Meg Ryan, Diane Keaton, Lisa Kudrow, Walter Matthau Directed by Diane Keaton Rated PG-13 (language and some sex-related material)

Running time 92 minutes

Released by Columbia Pictures

Sun score ** 1/2

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