Heartburn has a hellacious pedigree. It was written by Nora Ephron, who also wrote rom-com classics like When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle. It was directed by Mike Nichols, a man who has won basically every award that a director could win, from the Academy Award (which he won for the Graduate) to the Tony (which he actually won six times across four decades.) Furthermore, the score was done by singer-songwriter Carly Simon, who in addition to winning multiple Grammys also won an Oscar for writing the theme song to Working Girl. (Although the less said about Simon's contributions to this film the better; Heartburn with a truly 80's-tastic version of the Itsy Bitsy Spider that is mind-bogglingly bad. You heard me: The Itsy Bitsy Spider.)
And that's just behind the scene talent. Heartburn's main character Rachel - a thinly disguised version of Ephron herself - is played by Meryl Streep, who has been nominated for more Oscars than any other performer in history. Rachel's husband - a thinly disguised version of Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein - is played by Jack Nicholson, who holds the record for the most Oscar nominations for a man. Any movie with those two as the leads would automatically become Oscar bait - but casting them as famous real-life writers? That's just gilding the prestige lily. (Incidentally, both Streep and Nicholson have other Oscar nominations for playing famous real life writers - she was Julia Child in Julie and Julia; he was Eugene O'Neil in Reds.)
And that's just the main cast - Heartburn even hid a few Oscar winners in bit parts. When I saw the name Milos Forman in the credits I didn't think that it could be the same Milos Forman who directed Amadeus and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest; in my mind that guy is a director, not an actor. But nope. Somehow Nichols managed to get the hugely influential Czechoslovakian auteur to step in front of the camera for a few dinner party scenes.
And that's just the people who were famous at the time. At the time Heartburn came out Kevin Spacey was a no-name hustling young actor, but they had the good luck to cast the future two time Oscar winner in a few scenes as a robber who steals Rachel's wedding ring at gunpoint. (Something tells me that when Spacey kicks they bucket they aren't going to use any of his scenes from this movie in the annual In Memorial Reel.)
You want to know how stacked this movie's IMDB page is? I'd never heard of cinematographer Néstor Almendros' name before I started writing this, but sure enough, once I clicked onto his bio I saw that he's the only man who has ever won an Oscar for a Terrence Malick film. I mean, Jesus, even the crew members I've never heard of before are legends in their field.
Heartburn gathered together an amazing roll call of writers, directors and actors... And yet, somehow all of those legendary talents failed to produce a compelling movie. Or at least they failed to produce a movie that was compelling to me. I'm sure that there are plenty of people out there who are interested in the quasi-comic romantic entanglements of uptight rich ladies, but that's never been my bread and butter.
That isn't because I'm against romances. On the contrary, I think that a good rom-com is an essential part of a healthy cinematic diet. And I don't even care about the "uptight" part. I'm not a huge fan of character studies neurotic people, but if they are done with enough nuance they can really work.
No, the most problematic word in that description was "rich". Rachel's problems should have been very relateable; her worries about her marriage and her family are fairly universal. Unfortunately the specifics of her life are so un-self consciously uppercrust that I could never see myself in her shoes. I'm well aware that parenting a young child is always difficult - but I don't really want to hear about how difficult it is from a stay at home mom who also has a full-time nanny on retainer. And yes, I know that it is hard to maintain a marriage. Still, it would be a lot easier to care about whether or not this particular marriage survived if I didn't suspect that these two well educated, well connected people would be able to recover from almost any non-fatal setback that befell them.
Look: I'm not a callous person. I always try to sympathize with human beings who are in distress even if they come from a privileged background. But there's a limit to how much sympathy I can summon up for neurotic people who are merely swimming in their own bourgeois bullshit. Heartburn exceeded that limit about halfway through.
I expected Heartburn to be the sort of intelligent adult fare that Hollywood used to specialize in but which barely gets made anymore. Alas, it ended up being less of a classic slice of life drama and more of a self-indulgent navel-gaze. Still, I don't regret giving this misfire a try, because a movie with this much potential can't be written off sight unseen. Besides, it wasn't a total bust - the two minutes where Kevin Spacey was waving a gun around while looking like a blonde goofball in a denim jacket covered in punk patches almost justified the existence of the whole movie. Sure, his work in American Beauty was more iconic - but that? That was a lot more fun.
Winner: The Cat