Let's face it: The best feel-good movies usually make us feel a little bad before they lay the "good" part on us. Diane Keaton's "Hanging Up" meets that criterion and then some. Keaton directs and stars in this often painfully real tale of three sisters, three cellular phones and two tragic, aging parents.
Walter Matthau takes the part of the dad and rolls with it -- in a wheelchair, that is. His Lou Mozell is a desperate, angry, needy alcoholic who's been abandoned by his wife, Pat (Cloris Leachman), and turns to his daughters for attention and support. Eve (Meg Ryan) is the good daughter: She's pretty, decent and as faithful and reliable as Lassie. Eve spends much of her time basking in intense memories of her childhood or patiently listening to her father's stories about rubbing elbows with John Wayne. Meanwhile, her sisters Georgia (Keaton) and Maddy (Lisa Kudrow) are busy with their own careers. Both make believable characters, even though one is a glamorous publishing magnate and the other a pretentious soap-opera star.
At times, the flustered, eccentric sisters descend into self-absorption while the actors who play them move dangerously close to reminding us of one of those nauseatingly peppy blondes in the hair-color commercials. When Eve smashes into a doctor's Mercedes-Benz in a parking garage, she smiles and pleads her way out of a ticket and a lawsuit. Seen later in a hopsital hallway, we almost expect her to break out into an a cappella version of "I Am Woman."
But for these shaky scenes, there are many moving, funny and engrossing moments in "Hanging Up." Connected by a strange emotional bond -- and of course their cellular phones -- Eve, Georgia and Maddy laugh, fight and cry without making us want to throw up. That's an accomplishment almost as great as Matthau's uncanny ability to make a selfish, dirty old man seem pitiable and even charming.