HEARTBURN (1986) with Meryl Streep (Rachel), Jack Nicholson (Mark), Stockard Channing (Julie), Jeff Daniels (Richard), Catherine O’Hara (Betty), Milos Forman (Dmitri) and Kevin Spacey (Subway Thief). Written by Nora Ephron, from her novel. Directed by Mike Nichols. Rated R for language. Streaming on Netflix.
An incredible cast, a great director, an acclaimed writer – Heartburn has some major elements of a classic, except that it’s not. This comedic drama, which follows two married writers and their doomed relationship, is incredibly flawed and uneven, but it has many a great moment; I can recommend the film. It’s a footnote to great careers, one that movie buffs are going to be glad they watched, even if it’s not a striking success.
The film begins at a wedding, where Mark (Jack Nicholson) meets Rachel (Meryl Streep). For both parties it’s almost-love at first sight. We learn from gossip at the wedding that Mark is a notorious womanizer, and again, before their own wedding (which comes about quickly) we are reminded that this relationship is doomed, especially when Rachel gets cold feet and is visited by Mark’s friends, who urge her to marry him despite the fact that he treats everyone like crap.
So even knowing they’re doomed, we root for the couple as they remodel their new home and raise their child. There is a classic bit where Nicholson goes off on the home remodelers for failing to put a door from the kitchen to the dining room. Moments like these are a testament to Nichol’s great comic sense, evident in more successful films like Primary Colors, Working Girl and The Graduate.
Nichols (who directed Nicholson to one of his great early performances in Carnal Knowledge, and one of his silliest in Wolf; and who worked with Streep in the Oscar-nominated Silkwood, as well as Carrie Fisher’s Postcards from the Edge and the Emmy and Golden Globe Award-sweeping Angels in America) is also great at underplaying emotional scenes, and the hospital birth scenes are touching because they are not revved-up. Before performing a c-section, the doctors warn Rachel that the baby may have a problem with it’s umbilical chord and the reactions of both actors – Streep’s vulnerable need for clarity and Nicholson’s silent assurance and faith that it will work out, stick with you. The scene where Rachel awakes to find Mark holding their baby shows the kind of power and poetry these brilliant collaborators are capable of – but alas, The Script Is King, and Nora Ephron (who also wrote the charming When Harry Met Sally… and Sleepless In Seattle) is a good writer, but I think this script needed another draft or two.
Inevitably, Mark has an affair and the couple is separated, in the middle of Rachel’s second pregnancy. She moves out and Mark moves out of the picture for a considerable length. Rachel moves from Washington D.C. to NYC, suffers emotional highs and lows, goes to therapy, gets robbed (if for nothing else, it’s worth watching a gaunt Kevin Spacey show up and rob Meryl Streep with a punk rock jacket and bleached-blonde hair – he looks like Lou Reed!), and finally reunites with Mark once again, only to see his adulterous ways continue.
Heartburn suffers from comedy that comes off as a bit heartless at times, a bit too contrived and cartoonish at others. The music, by Carly Simon, might have been acceptable on the radio in 1986 but it over-emphasizes the themes here. On the plus side, Meryl Streep turns a thinly written ‘everywoman’ role into a quirky, layered individual – at nearly every turn she does something interesting with her performance; she makes her broad yet believable, and with her own unique sense of humor. Nicholson is less successful with an even thinner role – he seems a bit disinterested in making Mark anything more than a typical cheater – his motivations are unclear and he lacks depth and individualism. When you set this performance alongside his preceding work as astronaut Garrett Breedlove in Terms of Endearment, it’s a bit disappointing on the whole. Apparently as an in-joke, and completely separated from the rest of the film, his character bursts into song several times- it doesn’t work, but I’m not sorry I saw it.
A clip from the film below: