The Year of Nora & Nancy: Dads & Divorce

               Last month I paid attention to how Nora Ephron and Nancy Meyers portrayed mothers in their filmography. While the results weren’t overly surprising, I wanted to give men the same treatment in June for Father’s Day. Despite both women’s reputations for primarily focusing on rom-coms or women’s stories onscreen, we can still find men throughout their movies—as love interests, sons, co-workers, friends, or enemies. So, how do films helmed by women portray men, either as leads or co-leads? It varies. In the same way as motherhood, our expectations and wants of fatherhood and men have changed over time and, in some ways, these films are more about the relationships between children and their fathers than about the father himself. So it’s interesting to see the differences and similarities between the films when it comes to this relationship.

               I began with 2000’s Hanging Up, written and produced by Nora Ephron based on her sister Delia’s novel and directed by Diane Keaton. The film mostly follows Eve (Meg Ryan) who has almost unwillingly become the main caretaker for her ailing father (Walter Matthau). Georgia (Diane Keaton), her wildly successful sister, has little time for family and Maddy (Lisa Kudrow) is busy chasing her acting career. As the title suggests, many of the conversations take place over the phone; constant attempts and failures for communication make it clear this is a family that has grown apart even if they still care for one another. Along with the present deteriorating health of their father, flashbacks from Eve’s perspective reveal both the highs and lows of their relationship (and briefly her mother). Part of the film’s issues comes from the trouble in balancing its tone and, I expect, audience expectations. Sometimes it feels like it wants to be a lighthearted comedy, but much of the subject matter leans too heavy into drama and, at times, melodrama. The push toward sentimentality in those moments feels too saccharine, as if everyone is following a formula: cue tears, cue hug, cue emotional speech. It doesn’t feel as genuine as it wants which is often a risk in this genre. Maybe this is because of the inclusion of the flashbacks which wrestle with Eve’s relationship with her father and reveal backstory, but those also feel necessary. A complicated past and her reasoning for staying despite it all are what provide her motives. It could be the way they’re filmed, as many of the shots aren’t as secure as they could be. The subject matter alone—a parent with dementia, trying to gather siblings before possible death, the unknown timeline of that death—is dramatic enough and the performances back much of it (especially Matthau), but the film floats when it should linger. It also has way too many subplots and supporting characters that vanish and end up feeling almost unnecessary. The film is a decent example of how children, daughters especially, can feel tied to parents who have not always treated them with love. That sometimes a parent can ask too much of their children and it’s up to the children to know when to say no.

               In a different vein, Nancy Meyers’ 2009 It’s Complicated focuses on the idea of an “ex with benefits.” This is actually the only film between Nora or Nancy that I’ve ever seen in theaters. While in New York for their son’s college graduation, divorced couple Jane (Meryl Streep) and Jake (Alec Baldwin) begin having an affair they keep secret from (almost) everyone around them, including Jake’s wife and Jane’s new love interest (Steve Martin). To be clear, the movie largely ‘frowns’ on the idea of the affair and Jane has guilt, but when she gets the okay from her therapist and friends a lot of that moral weight lifts. This is mostly because it’s framed as ‘revenge’ on Jake’s new wife and previous mistress. Note: Jake is never blamed as a serial cheater/adulterer even though it’s obviously a pattern, but that’s very much a thing of its time; we should move past that. Jake, as a father, is largely absent from his children’s lives and has been. It’s made clear that the kids, who were largely preteens when the divorce happened, are still hurting. And whatever role Jake plays in helping raise (essentially) his son with the new wife is minimal, and he’s actively avoiding having a baby with her. So is Jake father of the year? Not really. But, in contrast, we can’t be sure what kind of father Steve Martin’s Adam is either. It’s mentioned his kids are the same age as Jane’s, but that’s all we know. All the fatherhood aside, though, It’s Complicated is pure Meyers’ aesthetic. The production is gorgeous, the casting of the children is uncanny, the dialogue and humor is some of my favorite of her films (especially John Krasinski), and who can forget the baking chocolate croissants while high scene? It’s a film where all the parts are working at high production levels even if the story behind the sheen lacks a little luster. If Nancy Meyer’s films are about wish fulfillment, then Meryl Streep’s cottagecore vibes and hot girl summer check those boxes perfectly.

               I was hesitant to watch 2000’s What Women Want, partly because of the concept and part because I’ve grown up in a post-Mel Gibson rant world and have a hard time imagining him as a romantic lead. For its time, however, I can see why this film did relatively well. The concept is simple: Nick (Mel Gibson), a sexist ad executive, becomes able to hear women’s thoughts after a semi-magical accident involving feminine products, water, and electricity. At first he considers this newfound ability a curse, but eventually sees it as a boon to win approval at work and steal ideas from Darcy (Helen Hunt), the woman he sees as having stolen his rightful position, as well as improve his image with other women like his daughter. The film, as a whole, has very straightforward ideas of what constitutes masculinity and femininity so we can clearly see Nick’s transformation from smoking, drinking, talking-not-listening, dark-clothed to salad-eating, listening, caring, light-clothed “better” man. It makes good points that women’s thoughts are usually full of worries or how to achieve their goals and get things done, which is in contrast to Nick’s mind itself. Through the variety of thoughts he engages with, Nick becomes more sensitive and begins to ‘know’ women. However, just because he can hear their thoughts doesn’t mean he really understands them. The film tries but doesn’t go that far, and maybe it can’t without changing genre. A lighthearted rom-com from the early 2000s isn’t going to deal with some of the inherent fears women deal with on a daily basis. He’s given ‘permission’ to listen in on women’s thoughts and involve himself in their lives by another woman, which seems like a green light, but we can see how this doesn’t work. In using the ability for self-interest, Nick still hurts women because, again, knowing doesn’t mean understanding. It’s also pretty reflective of how advertising companies use media to pander to women while, at the same time, not really caring. This is even pointed out by his daughter, who he’s taking care of for two weeks, because she doesn’t believe these changes are permanent. And, even when the film concludes, it’s hard to say they are. His relationship with his daughter improves, because she initially sees him as more of an uncle and by the end they’re having a heart-to-heart at prom but how long will that last? Is this a man capable of long-term change? You can see Meyers’ touches in the production design and it’s well directed overall. Even Gibson charms for the film’s duration. However, this doesn’t feel like a film that quite stands up but is certainly of its time. So we can be somewhat glad that the conversations we’re having today about gender and sexuality have evolved in the last twenty-one years.

               Although, again, maybe not enough. The latest release from Meyers was 2020’s Father of the Bride Part 3(ish), a special to raise money for World Central Kitchen during the pandemic. In the history of Meyers’ filmography, George Banks (Steve Martin) certainly stands up as an ideal patriarch and in this special he’s taken to the role of father and grandfather nicely. The Banks family gathers together over Zoom for a special surprise from son, Matty (Kieran Culkin), during a difficult period of separation. The weirdest thing is honestly how “of its time” this special already is because of the safety procedures and early Covid-19 methodology that feels like it happened forever ago (but not really). The characters and actors still work in their parts, although it does feel a bit more overdone and less nuanced than it would be if it weren’t a Zoom special. The intercuts of footage from the previous films is a decent sentimental touch and stylistic continuation. Despite the rather simplistic pandemic humor, references to past films, and other plot points, it did get me to tear up and laugh a few times. Worth noting here is that Charles Shyer produced but otherwise didn’t have a hand in this film, unlike the earlier two. However, in the time since Father of the Bride Part II and when a Part III was initially bounced around, a lot of people had ideas for plots and ideas of content and, honestly, some of those ideas were more updated than this special. The addition of Alexandra Shipp is welcome, but did make the short feel a bit like Get Out. At this point, why not have more representation beyond that? Nancy Meyers sticks close to her wheelhouse and rarely deviates and this special, despite its different format, still feels like her brand and oeuvre. And, for a good cause and as a short film, we can’t argue too much with the end result.

               The notable thing this month is that three of our four-ish films featured divorced characters and dads. The end of Lou’s marriage in Hanging Up feels as traumatic to him as it was to his children, almost up to the climax of the film. However, it’s notable here that the ‘blame’ (as it were) is placed on the ex-wife; in a dramatic, hurtful, but needed moment, she states that so much of her marriage and motherhood was because she felt expected to, not because she wanted to. Obviously then, this helps us see Lou as the lesser of two evils from his daughters’ perspectives, but the damage is also evident. In It’s Complicated, Jane and Jake have been divorced for ten years but have a mostly amicable relationship before their affair begins. While each have their own motives for keeping it going, we can still see how it affects those around them, particularly their children. The kids can barely remember affection between their parents and the idea of an affair, that hope maybe they’ll get back together, is particularly hurtful to them. Adam, Jane’s love interest, is also divorced, but is not at fault and is positioned as someone who would understand what she went through. What Women Want begins with a monologue from Nick’s ex-wife about what makes “a man’s man.” We can see this is a pair that had chemistry, but weren’t right for each other, probably because of Nick. Darcy, also divorced, works as his love interest even when he can read minds because she usually says what she thinks which made her “hard to love.” However, part of the reason she seems to fall for him is because he’s parroting her thoughts back to her so it’s hard to say what the long-term potential is. Father of the Bride, Part 3-ish, then, is our only break from this pattern as George and Nina’s marriage remains strong after 50 years—again, they’re the ideal. So does this mean anything? Not necessarily, as many of Nancy Meyers and Nora Ephron’s films feature divorced characters in some way. However, we could also say it means that love is possible even after separation, that divorce can hurt and have long-term consequences, and that (supposedly) only divorced people understand each other. Regardless, it’s interesting to see films that often feature romance and marriage include the antithesis of it.

               With Nora Ephron and mostly Nancy Meyers, we have four different pictures of what fatherhood can be. It’s often complicated, especially when the parents are divorced and dad isn’t around. The relationship can be full of highs and lows. The expectations from children and the idea of being ‘let down so many times’ becomes standard until, miraculously, the dad changes and overcomes it. He may be around but unreachable. Sometimes, he’s overbearing, overly concerned, and not as connected with the kids’ lives as he could be. They roll their eyes and make a joke at his expense but, at the end of the day, there’s still a sense of love. He’s there when they need him. These films may indicate that the bond between a father and child may be impermanent, but it still exists and holds value.

               Generally, every month will have at least two films (but often more), so keep an eye on the blog for these updates. If you’re interested in what films I’ll be looking at you can find the whole list for The Year of Nora & Nancy on my Letterboxd. In July, we’ll commit some crimes with our filmmakers. Till then!

January: When Harry Met Sally (1989) & Father of the Bride (1991)

February: You’ve Got Mail (1998), Something’s Gotta Give (2003), I Love Trouble (1994), & Sleepless in Seattle (1993)

March: All I Wanna Do (1998) & Protocol (1984)

April: Private Benjamin (1980) & Silkwood (1983)

May: Father of the Bride Part II (1995), Baby Boom (1987), Heartburn (1986).