Out of nowhere I decided last night to rent a DVD of Mike Nichols‘ Heartburn (’86, which I hadn’t seen in a good 20 years. My recollection was that it was smoothly assembled with two super-confident, movie-star performances from Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson, and that it had a flush, slightly smug air about it, and was intermittently entertaining in portions but not that great overall, and was actually flat toward the end.
But I was moved to give it another go. And it was intermittently entertaining once more. I miss this kind of well-funded, well-acted, sophisticated adult dramedy with that Nichols attitude and a fine commercial gloss. I didn’t even mind the Carly Simon songs. And Streep’s portrayal of Rachel Samstadt (i.e., the stand-in for Heartburn screenwriter-novelist Nora Ephron) has many genuine moments, especially of vulnerability.
But the film has a huge roadblock or two (or three). Ephron’s screenplay, based on her mostly autobiographical 1983 novel of the same name, charts the breakdown and dissolution of her marriage to Watergate reporter and novelist Carl Bernstein. Bernstein is called Mark Forman in the film and played by Nicholson, who came aboard at the last minute when Mandy Patinkin, unhappy with his part, left the film early on.
The problem is that Nicholson’s affair with the unseen giraffe lady with the big splayed feet (inspired by Bernstein’s affair with Margaret Jay) happens entirely off-screen and reveals nothing at all about Nicholson’s psychology. All you can sense is that he feels vaguely threatened by fatherhood and responsibility. It just feels bizarre that the affair just happens without the audience being told anything. Nicholson’s Mark is just a selfish shit (which may well have been the case except it takes two to bring a marriage down), and I felt bothered and irritated that I wasn’t getting the whole story.
And their friends (Richard Masur, Jeff Daniels, Stockard Channing, Milos Forman, et. al.) do nothing but sit around at weddings and dinner parties and picnics and share knowing glances and go “Well, yeah…obviously” and “cluck, cluck, cluck.” I began to really hate this bunch. Do they have lives? If so, do they involve disappointments or failures or betrayals that are similar to the ones being endured by Mark and Rachel? I gradually began to dislike this Greek chorus more than Nicholson’s character, in a way. I wanted at least one of them to get killed in a car crash.
“The movie is full of talented people, who are fun to watch, but after a while the scenes that don’t point anywhere begin to add up, and you start asking yourself: ‘What is this movie about?’,” wrote New Yorker critic Pauline Kael. “You are still asking [this] when it’s over, and by then a flatness, a disappointment, is likely to have settled over the fillips you’d enjoyed.
“Although Ephron is a gifted and a witty light essayist, her novel is no more than a variant of a princess fantasy: Rachel, the wife, is blameless; Mark, the husband, is simply a bad egg — an adulterer. And, reading the book, you don’t have to take Rachel the bratty narrator very seriously; her self-pity is so thinly masked by humor and unabashed mean-spiritedness that you feel that the author is exploiting her life — trashing it by presenting it as a juicy, fast-action comic strip about a marriage of celebrities.”