Wednesday, March 14, 2018
Played From The Inside
The reasons don’t matter. All you have is the pain. You feel it down to your bones and it never leaves you. Whatever connection that was once there is severed. Sometimes in the middle of the sadness you remember the laughter, emerging from a memory of one of those days in private moments that seemed to go on forever and you wish more than anything you could have that feeling back. The laughter of the one who went away.
The Mike Nichols film of HEARTBURN came out in late July 1986 and it’s not exactly what we think of as a summer movie anymore but it did open the same day as Stephen King’s MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE so I hope somebody did that double feature in a multiplex somewhere. Based on Nora Ephron’s novel and directly inspired by her marriage to Carl Bernstein and how the discovery of his affair while she was pregnant led to their divorce, maybe some of the details were altered for the fictional retelling in the book but they were certainly changed for the film; part of the divorce agreement stated, for one thing, that the character based on Bernstein in the film could not be presented as anything other than a loving father when it came to his children. Mike Nichols even served as legal signatory, so this was not just any dissolution of a marriage. This was one that got a movie, directed by someone who was already closely attached to the situation with Ephron writing the script herself, following up on co-writing SILKWOOD for Nichols a few years earlier. And one where, because of his direct connection to the people involved, it was made by someone working in a world that he knew intimately. More than most films, HEARTBURN is a product of the people who lived what happened. The pain is tangible and the jokes have a sting to them, even if it still feels like some blanks haven’t entirely been filled in.
Food writer Rachel Samstat (Meryl Streep) meets well-known political columnist Mark Forman (Jack Nicholson) at a wedding where they are instantly drawn to each other. In spite of her initial reluctance they soon marry so Rachel moves with him to Washington where they purchase a Georgetown townhouse, she quickly joins his circle of friends and becomes pregnant. All is well when the baby is born and Rachel doesn’t waste any time getting pregnant with their second child but it all shatters when she discovers Mark’s infidelity with a D.C. socialite. She leaves him immediately, heading back to New York, knowing he’ll follow soon enough and she needs to figure out whether she’s going to forgive him or if such a thing is even possible.
The upper class DNA of HEARTBURN is undeniable, offering a clear view of that New York-D.C. corridor of dinner parties and lunches with fellow media types and complaining about availability of bagels in Washington. An early moment of Streep and Nicholson kissing in front of Cinema I as a showing of MEPHISTO lets out captures that exhilaration of new love found in the perfect place in the world, a world where to have lunch with someone is to know them. To be there is to exist. HEARTBURN probably wouldn’t even be ranked in the top five of Mike Nichols films but it feels like more than any of them he understands every single person in it, down to the extras, that 80s New York which seems so distant now. Along with a preponderance of long takes and even a few cast members it’s hard not to think of the Woody Allen aesthetic from this period as well. A recitation at the wedding where the two leads meet can be heard with the speaker using the phrase ‘love never fades’ as Streep’s Rachel Samstat tears up to the sentiments while Nicholson’s Mark Forman sitting elsewhere is on the verge of falling asleep. The directing credit for Nichols appears over his zoned out expression and HEARTBURN is like a feature length rebuttal to the very idea that love doesn’t fade. Of course love fades. There are times when it has to, whether you like it or not. And no matter how much you cling to what was there, if it’s gone it’s gone.
What HEARTBURN has in addition to the performances is a laid back vibe with an array of clever and insightful dialogue which for a while displays no serious concerns beyond the various friends lounging about on vacation talking about nothing much at all or just the simple glory of Jack Nicholson explaining the plot of THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN’T DIE to Meryl Streep. It’s the sort of film that maybe I’d overrate slightly in memory just because of the people involved, remembering it as an amusing comedy of manners but maybe it isn’t quite substantial enough. It’s a lark of neurosis about two people, each with a marriage already behind them, old enough to be wary of any sign that they’ll fall for someone but just as open to the possibility and even when Rachel gets such a case of nerves that she can’t come out of her bedroom for her own wedding it’s nothing to get too upset over. The sight of them eating pizza late at night and singing songs to each other while celebrating her pregnancy gives a looseness to what we know are the good times with genuine chemistry between the two, a feeling of joy that gradually turns into a bitterly enjoyable exercise of a film, at times more a series of bits where actors play off each other in small moments which is still amusing in itself.
It’s a film about nitpicking whether it has to do with the inability to get their house finished or how in the middle of her therapy session when Rachel tearfully reveals Mark’s affair a few of the other members of the group argue over who brought the chopped liver. That’s life, in the middle of the most dramatic moments there’s always going to be that bickering until that’s just about all there is with nothing left to build on. Ephron wrote WHEN HARRY MET SALLY only a few years later and in some ways HEARTBURN is a proto-version of the broader themes in that film with one famous line that originated in the book of “Heartburn” turning up there instead of this film. Harry and Sally’s jobs matter even less than they do here; Rachel and Mark are both writers which has potential on the surface but never matters very much. The bitter aftertaste that grows is what we’re meant to pay attention to.
Stylistically, it feels like a midway point for Mike Nichols, featuring many scenes shot it long takes but without the coldness of the overly composed anamorphic framings from back during the days of THE GRADUATE and CARNAL KNOWEDGE. The view of D.C. is lightly satirical but it’s still part of the real world with a naturalistic flavor of spring brought to it by Director of Photography Nestor Almendros. More than anything each scene focuses on the actors in the frame, facing them dead on with no distancing technique as if to make us part of their fights but as close as the shots get the answers don’t become any more clear. By this point Nichols’ directorial style has become totally relaxed with an economy to the storytelling as well as the jokes so he never cuts unless absolutely necessary—a dinner party is seen in one shot circling around a table ending on a sight gag that shows how out of place Rachel is, a visual joke that gets me to laugh every time. And her growing realization of what might really be going on while getting her hair done is an expertly done moment, stretching out the denial of the inevitable truth as it becomes more terrifyingly clear by the second.
Nicholson’s Mark Forman tossing off a careless “To marriage” as a toast says it all in a blink, unexplained bitterness he’s holding onto that’s growing as he turns his complaints about missing socks into the excuse for where he is all the time. And it’s as if the way he’s using the nitpicking that his wife is such an expert on to fool her is the greatest betrayal of all. But even if there is a reason it still doesn’t matter no matter how much she tries to talk herself into her own feelings while searching for one. I still wish it was more about how the creative edge can get lost if you don’t tend to it and it’s hard not to wonder if even the pettiest of arguments between the real Ephron and Bernstein might have had more teeth to them than what we get here. Maybe because of Jack Nicholson, even if his star power is muted, it makes me imagine the film as something of a Mike Nichols version of THE SHINING, only in this one instead of the writer husband going crazy he just becomes mildly perturbed and uncommunicative while the wife, also a writer in this incarnation, comes at him ready to kill with a desk drawer filled with receipts—Streep emerging from the bathroom holding that drawer might be one of the single best shots involving the combat of two people in a room from the entire second half of Mike Nichols’ filmmaking career.
One other filmic connection might be how the prominent song “Coming Around Again” that serves as the basis for much of Carly Simon’s score appears in the official playlist that recently went with 70mm screenings of Paul Thomas Anderson’s PHANTOM THREAD, another film about a somewhat toxic relationship played largely in close-ups in which food plays a key role. For some people that song with its “Itsy Bitsy Spider” refrain found in the film’s most hopeful moments between Rachel and daughter Annie might be all they remember about HEARTBURN years after seeing it and it’s hard to keep from the song getting stuck in your head, just as the drops of water in that unfinished house representing their marriage and every ounce of tension in it keep dripping down from the leaky roof overhead, as if an incessant reminder that it’s all going to crash down whether you know it or not, whether you admit it or not.
Some of the greatest pleasures in the film are the most offhand like how Milos Forman, whose character hasn’t even been introduced at this point, is placed right in the middle of the shot as the wedding takes place, prominently chewing gum for all the world to see and whenever I see the movie again it’s for these moments more than anything. When Rachel’s therapy group is robbed by a mugger played in his first film by Kevin Spacey (apologies) who followed her out of the subway all the items are placed in a Balducci’s bag, definitely part of the world of lower Manhattan circa ’86 almost as if it’s the side details that really matter, not the foreground which wouldn’t be a problem if the center of it all were stronger. The Jewishness has been bled out (the book’s “Mark Feldman” becoming “Mark Forman” for starters) which makes it feel like we’re missing some of the specifics of the life, the marriage and all the food they eat. Mark Forman is always looking for something he can get a column out of, just as the HBO documentary about Ephron by her son Jacob Bernstein called EVERYTHING IS COPY was a phrase she would use that was passed down from her own mother. Based on HEARTBURN it’s clear that while it’s what she believes it’s also a matter of who she feels is entitled to tell the story.
The book contains recipes to go along with the details that Rachel Samstat reveals about her life, keeping those thoughts in mind almost in a Zen way to concentrate on while other things are falling apart, an element not quite as prominent in the film so I guess the Streep-Ephron combo had to wait for JULIE & JULIA to really focus on the food. It’s certainly there in the film with the crucial use of a key lime pie near the end which in the book played as more of an act of slapstick (in real life Ephron apparently poured a bottle of wine over Bernstein during a dinner at Ben Bradlee’s house) but in the film the moment comes off as totally numb as if the Novocain has permanently been applied. Even the camera angle used for much of the climactic dinner scene doesn’t give us the best vantage point on the action as if to say that the main character is already barely there anyway, not even trying anymore which makes sense but still isn’t entirely satisfying. The film avoids giving any concrete reason for Mark’s cheating with even some pretty good dialogue in the book along these lines going unused but that’s not what the film is about. It still means that there’s a hole where a fully fleshed out character for Nicholson could be but the pain feels genuine so it’s clear that the film believes he hasn’t earned the chance to give his side of the story. It’s not his film. All there is, in the end, is what there was. At a key moment Rachel has Mark tell the story of when she gave birth to their first child but when he finishes, she turns away from him as if to say that from that moment on those memories are for her alone. The film rarely goes beyond the surface but in fairness it knows that the surface is where we spend most of our time anyway. The reasons don’t matter. Only the possibilities that were destroyed.
One of the rare breed of films that didn’t provide Meryl Streep with an Oscar nomination (it did happen the following year for IRONWEED which reunited her with Nicholson) but the expert comic timing she displays combined with the inherent decency that she projects makes her the perfect match for the script’s point of view. Spending much of the film silently registering what people say without much of a response it becomes fascinating watching her reactions, the awareness on her face growing to the final awakening of how there’s nothing in this marriage left to fight for. Jack Nicholson was actually a last-minute replacement for Mandy Patinkin who was let go after a day of shooting (the first attempt at shooting THE TWO JAKES had just fallen apart so he was available and unlike, say, Dustin Hoffman no one would have mistaken him for Carl Bernstein) and the comic moments here are his best, particularly the intensity of his anger at the lack of work being done on the house. His own body language adds greatly to the performance as well, particularly when he shows up for the attempted reconciliation as if he’s a little boy who’s been found out but the rest of it is a little too vague, an unspoken annoyance covering up whatever else is going on. It’s a part that’s deliberately underwritten after the charm wears off so not much else comes through, he’s not playing Carl Bernstein but a sort of generic Washington “columnist” who apparently vacillates between politics and general observations of the world. We should all be lucky to have such a column. The supporting cast that backs them up is killer particularly Jeff Daniels as Rachel’s co-worker, clearly keeping quiet about a crush he seems to have on her and his gimme-a-break look during the wedding, sitting behind Maureen Stapleton with tears in her eyes, is one of my favorite things in the film. Steven Hill is also particularly effective, playing Rachel’s father as the epitome of facing loss and darkness in the world by simply moving forward (he gets maybe the best line too: “You want monogamy? Marry a swan.”). There’s also the likes of Stockard Channing, Richard Masur, Catherine O’Hara, Joanna Gleason, Mercedes Ruehl and Karen Akers as the much talked about Thelma Rice. The credited Natalie Stern as the Forman daughter Annie is actually the first screen appearance of Mamie Gummer, bringing an undeniable looseness to her scenes with the interest in her mother obviously genuine and not caring at all about whatever movie is taking place around them, the perfect reminder of the goodness that Mark Forman has chosen to ignore.
The bitter message of HEARTBURN may simply be a reminder to never get too happy. Because the pain isn’t worth it. In one scene they play a party game over dinner, describing themselves in just a few words as if to say that you only need to know the basics, just as only the gossip matters about a person. But when they’re close enough they do matter. In Richard Cohen’s book “She Made Me Laugh: My Friend Nora Ephron” he recalls that just after she died he received a phone call from Mike Nichols who had one question as he broke down: “What are we going to do now?” Sometimes you wonder that even when people haven’t died. If they’re gone, they’re gone. Even if there are reasons, there’s no point in saying them and those moments of lying in bed in the middle of the night watching an old horror film on TV eating spaghetti carbonara are nothing more than something only one of you remembers. Rachel keeps repeating how happy she is, only maybe with him it’s not about achieving happiness but about keeping that high going. Maybe, if you’re lucky, you’ll forget the best times or at the very least accept that they were nothing more than part of a dream you were living in. In the end, that might be the only way to stay alive.