On Screen: Heartburn and Nothing in Common

Heartburn: Written by Nora Ephron; Directed by Mike Nichols; Paramount

Nothing in Common: Written by Rick Podell and Michael Preminger; Directed by Garry Marshall; Tri-Star

People want to be changed by their troubles. If a tragedy jolts the sufferer toward a new goal or a different view of himself, grief may not disappear but it certainly is mitigated. And surely we more willingly listen to those victims who have extracted meaning from pain rather than to those who can only cry forth their ongoing uninflected woes. Doesn’t Dylan Thomas’s villanelle, “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” achieve a more throbbing sense of grief than Ginsberg’s “Howl” partly because while reading the former we feel that Thomas’s initial mourning has led him to meaning? So hungry are we for character growth that we even pay heed to victimizers as long as they’ve been punished and then press the appropriate buzzwords: “Phil, I can honestly tell you and your studio audience and all the listeners at home that the Watergate cover-up eventually turned out to be the most rewarding experience of my life. Because of having participated in it, I’ve gained new perspectives, I’ve grown emotionally, and, best of all, I feel good about myself.” But these buzzwords produce their buzz precisely because they satisfy a very real human longing: the need to feel that all of life, the best and the worst of it, teaches rather than stunts us, leads us somewhere — as long as it’s not in circles.

This need, in my opinion, made Nothing in Common the surprise movie hit of the late summer, and made Heartburn the surprise flop.

Both films deal with marital break-up. Both star bright young actors fresh from recent successes (Tom Hanks from Splash and Meryl Streep from her last half-dozen Oscar-nominated performances), and have well-established favorites (Jackie Gleason and Jack Nicholson) in the main supporting roles. All these actors perform near the top of their abilities. The dialogues of both films have tartness and snap. Directors Garry Marshall and Mike Nichols have both worked dextrously (though the latter shows a more delicate sense of form). Esthetics alone cannot explain the differing critical and popular responses to these works.

The real point of contrast is the way these movies affect the morale of their viewers: Heartburn, with wit and some subtlety, tells people they can’t change, even through suffering. Nothing in Common, with little subtlety but much charm, tells people that they not only can but must change, that pain anneals character. Right now it’s the latter that Americans want to hear.

Strangely enough, Heartburn may be the casualty not of its own cynicism but of the emotional generosity of its director, Mike Nichols and, possibly, some second thoughts of Nora Ephron, who has fashioned the screenplay from her own novel, a beach blanket masterpiece that provides wonderful entertainment for anyone who zooms through it. Read at any speed less than six hundred words a minute the book proves nauseatingly shallow, a 220-page whine from a woman too intelligent to want to come on as a Jewish American Princess, but who is a Jewish American Princess anyway. The book’s most startling flaw is Ephron’s total inability to portray adequately the very character who is the raison d’etre for the book: the despicable adulterer, Mark.

I write “despicable” because he does despicable things, not because Ephron is ever able to bring his baseness to vivid fictive life. On paper, Mark is a Yuppie cipher, whose only marked penchant is for reading magazines like Casa Vogue and Architectural Digest. (Yet he doesn’t even register convincingly as houseproud or materialistic.) Rachel, Ephron’s narrator and alter ego, keeps lobbing verbal rotten tomatoes at this nebbish but can’t score a hit because there simply isn’t anybody there. Perhaps Ephron’s strategy was for each of her female readers to fill in this blank with the latest rat in her own life. The book is a page-turner not because of its treatment of its ostensible theme (adultery obliterating family happiness) but for its racy peripheral details about living in precarious affluence in New York and Washington, D.C.

The filmmakers (and this may include Ephron herself) aren’t having any of this. Jack Nicholson has been cast as Mark and that puts paid to any possibility of Mark’s being a nebbish. As soon as he and Streep step into a church entranceway together in the very first shot (strangers to each other, they are attending a mutual friend’s wedding), it’s quite clear that these two are meant to have equal weight in the story, to make equal claims on our sympathies.

Streep has splendidly deployed, without fuss or self-consciousness, a whole new battery of gestures, walk, make-up, and vocal inflections to catch the very essence of an upwardly mobile, independent yet vulnerable Jewish woman. The woman’s whole past is present in Streep’s tiniest gestures. (Notice the way she keeps her eyes down in the jewelry store scene when she learns of her husband’s final treachery. This conveys just the right blend of nearly exhausted pain and coiled anger.) And now that the Ephron narrative voice, with all its raciness and New York Magazine knowingness, is gone, we can concentrate instead on Rachel’s contentment with family life and her confusion when infidelity wrecks it. Having less Ephron and more Streep has shifted our attention back to the story’s real subject.

With his seemingly galvanized hair-cut and perpetually arched eyebrows, Nicholson has in recent years taken on the aspect of a charming demon, and it’s this mischievous magnetism that makes the screen Mark Rachel’s equal, rather than her dartboard. Nicholson’s Mark isn’t houseproud; he just isn’t housebroken. He seems a tough, profane journalist who’s simply not now, and may never be, ready for marriage.

In the film, Rachel and Mark are ships that should have passed in the night. Each has enough substance to make us think he/she might flourish alone; but they are simply wrong for each other. The book’s marriage monotonously chugged to a crash on tracks laid down by a nerd’s infidelity and insensitivity. The movie marriage keeps promising to jump those tracks, to be a portrait of the really messy event a break-up can be when both participants are complex, engaging people. But, in the last half-hour of the movie, after Mark and Rachel have vowed to give the marriage a second chance, the script hops right back on those dreary tracks. Mark cheats again. In the book, Ephron gives him a despicable motivation: he had never really planned to salvage the marriage at all but was simply maneuvering for custody rights. But this nastiness wouldn’t do for Nicholson, so Ephron simply leaves it out, supposing perhaps that Nicholson’s innate gift for portraying sneaky lubricity would be enough.

But Nicholson has supplied his role with much more than libido: he has given it warmth and wit. So the audiences who at first flocked to this movie in its first week wanted to see this sexy, funny man collide head-on with this sexy, truehearted woman. They wanted to see both characters opened up by the collision and somehow changed. Instead, the narrative sidles over to Rachel and we witness the final break-up only from her point-of-view, a shift that makes Mark the man shrink into Mark the rat. And Rachel, the filmmakers intimate (by the use of a mocking Carly Simon song on the soundtrack of the concluding scene), also can’t change but will marry and divorce yet again because don’t you know, darlings. women just can’t stand alone but all men are such rats.

The audience, warmed up by the Streep-Nichol son chemistry, was turned off by this sour-chic conclusion. And told their friends to stay away. That’s too bad, because Heartburn, until it chills up in the last reel, is a rather good movie.

Nothing in Common never chills; in fact, it might have benefited from a little astringency. Its success is far from inexplicable. The film shows that while life can’t be diddled, it needn’t crush us.

The movie’s hero, David Basner, finds life catching up with him in the shape of one of its most basic dilemmas: his parents are in pain and they need him. Late in life, they’re breaking up and, since they can’t communicate with each other, they must communicate with him. They need his time, attention, energy, understanding, and even his money. Except for the last commodity, David (Tom Hanks) seems like the last person on earth to come across. An adman with a Chicago agency, he’s a hustler of ideas, and as a confirmed Don Juan, he’s a hustler of women. The moviemakers could have gone easy on themselves by portraying David as a spiritual basket case, full of self-loathing and longing for an opportunity to sound his inner depths. But instead they do something exhilaratingly honest: they make it clear that David relishes his job and thoroughly enjoys scoring with as many women as possible. For him, the ad agency is like a money-making frat house where he’s encouraged not only to hang onto his youthful facetiousness but to amplify it and put it on paper and videotape so that his funny, glib commercials will kid the public into buying things they don’t really need. Further, David’s romantic life is an extension of his salesmanship. His whole existence is one seamless high and he loves it.

So when David’s parents make claims on him, they don’t seem to him to be summoning him to rise to a noble occasion; they’re just being a drag. Early in the film David tells a friend about the role his parents have always played in his daydreams of success: after making his first million, he will buy himself a splendid house, his parents will visit it once, make happy noises over their son’s affluence, kiss him goodbye, and immediately drop dead. But, in reality, they unload on him the bitter memories they don’t dare confront each other with, along with long hours in hospital rooms when he is supposed to be at work, and lengthy recriminations that douse the high spirits of a young man who makes his living by packaging those high spirits.

Jackie Gleason gives the movie performance of his life by bringing to the surface the rancor that has always simmered beneath his comic portraits (think of Ralph Kramden’s tenement tirades). His Max Basner is failing as a salesman and fading as a Lothario. His wife’s desertion seems the conclusive push down the steep and slippery slope toward death. He now feels himself most alive while snarling sarcastically at his son. It’s not that Max resents the fact that David still enjoys the things that are now eluding him (in fact, he takes a covert delight in his son’s womanizing). His taunts and self-destructive behavior are, simultaneously, cries for help and gestures of defiance should that help fail to materialize, as if a drowning man should shout “save me!” and “don’t care if you do!” in the same breath.

David does save his father. He does it grudgingly at first, because he does not like having a crimp put in his swinger’s schedule. He does not want to change. But when he allows his father’s misfortune to break into his endless round of con jobs and couplings, he realizes that change is inevitable, he moves forward into a closer relationship with father, toward a more settled and, alas, more boring way of life for himself — and, of course, a little closer to his own aging and death.

Nothing in Common has obvious flaws. The writers try to make the mother’s role equal to the father’s but, though Eva Marie Saint does what she can with it, her dialogue lacks the abrasive zest of the repartee shared by Hanks and Gleason. Though David’s decision to stay at his father’s sickbed rather than attend an important business conference needs to be shown as a painful sacrifice, the filmmakers cushion David’s fall from business grace by giving him an understanding boss who goes to bat for him. And when David loses a sultry inamorata from the business world, an old sweetheart is quite ready to fill the vacancy.

But the heart of the movie is the father-son relationship, and it is to this that audiences are responding. In a country that invented the Me Generation, audiences are going to see a comedy about a young man who wants to live on the wing but who deliberately grounds himself out of respect for those who gave him life. The audience laughs as he wriggles in the grip of this biological commitment, and sympathizes with him as he is forced to change.

  • Richard Alleva

    At the time he wrote this review, Richard Alleva was a free-lance writer living in Washington D.C. He still works as a film critic for publications such as Commonweal today.

tagged as:

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on
Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack

Share to...