Heartburn

The last time Mike Nichols and Meryl Streep got together at the movies, the result was Silkwood, perhaps Nichols’ most casually assured film and definitely Streep’s loosest performance. It makes perfect sense that Nichols should direct Streep in her first comic role—and that she should pull it off quite effortlessly.

Actually, Heartburn is not your average romantic comedy—it’s more in the bittersweet vein of Woody Allen’s Manhattan love stories. But that still means Streep gets to engage in more funny business than she ever has—with considerable help from Jack Nicholson, the ideal actor to bring out her playful streak.

Heartburn is based on Nora Ephron’s best-selling novel about a New York magazine writer (Streep) who marries a Washington Post columnist (Nicholson), a fellow who turns out to be less than reliable in the fidelity department. Just before they’re to have their second baby, Streep finds out that her husband has been having an affair—a discovery that sends her into a crisis of faith and indecision.

That’s the skeleton of the plot; the film itself is full of wandering incidents in the lives of this couple and their friends. Ephron’s screenplay (she also scripted Silkwood) sketches the sorts of little behavioral scenes that Nichols excels at capturing: the pre-wedding sequence, when Streep refuses to leave her room and has to be coaxed out by a variety of wedding guests; a picnic during which the fate of all the unmatched socks in the world is debated; and the news of Streep’s first pregnancy, which is accompanied by the couple singing all the songs they can think of with the word “baby” in the title, their mouths full of pizza.

All of these scenes involve food, and eating is the central metaphor here: the consumption of food and the consumption of love. The motif builds so that the climax—Streep’s final gesture of defiance—is much, shall we say, tastier than it otherwise would have been.

While Ephron’s dialogue is keen and Nichols’ direction is supportive, there’s a sense of meandering in the film, especially in the second hour, when Nicholson drifts into the background. The film is told completely from Streep’s point of view, and Nicholson’s behavior is largely inexplicable.

Nicholson has his inimitable charm, although Nichols perhaps allows him to overmug in a couple of scenes (however, Nicholson does bring the house down with his singing in the baby-song scene).

The supporting actors are a fine, mixed bunch, although none of them seem to get enough on-screen time. Richard Masur and Stockard Channing play the couple’s best friends; Jeff Daniels (Purple Rose of Cairo) is Streep’s editor; Steven Hill has a nice scene as Streep’s father (“You want monogamy? Marry a swan.”); Catherine O’Hara, formerly of “SCTV,” plays a gossip (“Thelma Rice had her legs waxed. For the first time. Need I say more?”); and director Milos Forman (Amadeus) has a tiny role in which he gives a memorably accented reading to a line I can’t repeat here.

Ephron’s novel was reportedly a transparent fictionalization of her marriage to and divorce from Washington Post writer Carl Bernstein. This means that Bernstein has now been played by two of America’s better actors: Dustin Hoffman in All the President’s Men and Jack Nicholson here. The guy may be unfaithful and a bit of a cad, but seems to be doing something right.

First published in the Herald, July, 1986

The filmography of Mike Nichols is a truly unusual subject. Heartburn sounds like a project that should have been a Nichols classic, especially with that lead casting, but it’s not particularly special beyond those comic highs. And yet, in something like Biloxi Blues, where your expectations might be ratcheted down quite a bit, he brandishes a real grasp of mise-en-scene and sense of place. Silkwood, for that matter, still feels like maybe his best movie, even if it doesn’t stand as a pillar of film history as, say, The Graduate does.

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