the review site with a difference since 1999
Reviews Interviews Articles Apps About

Paramount Studios presents

Heartburn (1986)

"My husband—you know, the one I married at the wedding? I left him. He's been seeing someone very tall."- Rachel (Meryl Streep)

Stars: Meryl Streep, Jack Nicholson
Other Stars: Maureen Stapleton, Jeff Daniels, Mercedes Ruehl, Joanna Gleason, Kevin Spacey, Milos Forman, Catherine O'Hara
Director: Mike Nichols

MPAA Rating: R for (language, mature situations)
Run Time: 01h:49m:17s
Release Date: 2004-07-06
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B+ A-B-C+ D-


DVD Review

How strange it must be these days to be Carl Bernstein. His former partner is one of the most respected (and certainly the bestselling) journalist in America; his former wife went on to become an A-list Hollywood director; and he's seen a chapter of his life turned into a major motion picture, not once, but twice. Is there anybody else in the world who has been played by both Dustin Hoffman and Jack Nicholson? The former played Bernstein in maybe the greatest journalism picture of all time, All the President's Men; and the latter takes the reins here, in a thinly fictionalized version of his marriage to and subsequent divorce from Nora Ephron, who wrote a roman à clef about the relationship, as well as the screenplay based on that book. Heartburn is that novel and movie, and while it's easy to dismiss it, given that it isn't a titanic achievement, especially given the level of talent involved, it is a movie full of smart observations and small pleasures.

Meryl Streep plays Rachel Samstad, New York food writer (Ephron was a food writer for New York Magazine back in the day); divorced and looking, she meets and is swept away by Mark Foreman, dashing D.C. columnist. It's an indication of the film's efficient storytelling that their meeting, courtship and wedding happens in under ten minutes. Rachel forsakes her beloved Manhattan for Washington, and sets about creating domestic bliss. She and Mark buy a dilapidated Georgetown townhouse, and set about renovating it; soon she's pregnant, and shortly after the first baby arrives, another is on its way. On paper, it's urban marital domestic bliss.

But of course people aren't married on paper. Mark's quest for the perfect pair of socks turns out to be his thin ruse for his assignations with Thelma Rice, hopelessly tall D.C. socialite; a very pregnant Rachel discovers his infidelities, and how she and he contend with them is pretty much what this movie is about. Can he stop fooling around? How much deceit is she prepared to put up with? It's very domestic, and that seems to be what some people dismiss about it—with Streep and Nicholson starring, and Mike Nichols directing, expectations are enormous. It's certainly not a movie made on a grand scale, but it's full of truths about marriage and domesticity—there are few marriages in film that have as many layers as Rachel and Mark's, full of anger, sweetness, silence, intimacy, boredom. And of course you've got Jack and Meryl. As written, Mark isn't much of a character—it's Rachel's movie, and he's charming at first, then a lout. (The word back in the day was that Mandy Patinkin was originally slated to play the role, but somehow got tainted by too much contact with Bernstein, and wanted to make the character more likable; Nichols quickly snuffed that out, and brought in a last-minute replacement, his leading man from Carnal Knowledge. When your second fiddle is Jack Nicholson, you are one very well-connected director.) And so even though we don't get much of Mark's interior life, Nicholson is terrifically charismatic—and if the stereotypical Nicholson performance can sometimes border on kabuki (from R.P. McMurphy through at least Jack Torrance), he's restrained and intimate here, and thoroughly compelling.

Even better is Streep, perhaps because she's given more to work with, and the story is told from her character's perspective. As an Ephron stand-in, she's specific and so completely human—a good mother who can admittedly get fed up with the kids, a wife who so wants to be happy that she wallows in self-delusion, a writer never afraid of brashly expressing her own opinions. Some of the ethnic specificity is lost from page to screen—as Ephron and Bernstein are, in the novel Mark and Rachel are Jewish, and some of the jokes don't transfer as well as they might. For instance, on his first date with Rachel, Mark describes his first wife, in the novel, as "one of the very first Jewish Kimberlys." Nicholson's line of dialogue changes this to "one of the very first Kimberlys," deflating the joke, with its WASP assimilationist pretensions. But that's a pretty fair price to pay to get those names above the title.

Nicholson and Streep are supported by a galaxy of excellent actors in smaller parts, including Jeff Daniels as an editor smitten with Rachel, even when she's pregnant; Stockard Channing and Richard Masur as Mark's best friends in Washington; Catherine O'Hara as a nosy TV anchorwoman, and Milos Forman as her beau; and a group therapy session led by Maureen Stapleton and including Joanna Gleason and Mercedes Ruehl—they're robbed by a nervous young thug, played, in his screen debut, by Kevin Spacey. Also, Nichols has assembled a tremendous array of talent behind the camera, too, including costume designer Ann Roth; production designer Tony Walton; Nichols' longtime editor Sam O'Steen; brilliant director of photography Néstor Almendros; and soundtrack contributions from Carly Simon.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: A fairly perfunctory transfer; Almendros's photography generally looks fine, but you'll see some scratches and debris.

Image Transfer Grade: B-

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: On both the mono and the 5.1 tracks, balance can be a little hinky; in a couple of instances, Carly Simon's vocals drown out some of Streep's dialogue. Otherwise, it all sounds fair enough.

Audio Transfer Grade: C+ 

Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 20 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extras Review: Only chapter stops and English-language subtitles.

Extras Grade: D-

Final Comments

Heartburn is decidedly a minor effort in the careers of those involved, but it's a knowing, wry, winning look at the dissolution of a marriage and all of its psychological and emotional consequences. If you don't expect too much from it, you'll find many virtues here; it's an empathetic film made by top-tier professionals both in front of and behind the camera.

Jon Danziger 2004-06-30