Picks and Pans Review: Heartburn

updated 08/04/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/04/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Skirt-chasing Jewish prince leaves self-mocking Jewish wife for shiksa goddess. Nora Ephron made something freshly funny of that plot line in her 1983 best-seller by lifting many of the details from the breakup of her own marriage to Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein. (The split was precipitated by Bernstein's affair with Margaret Jay, wife of a former British ambassador, while Nora was pregnant with their second child.) That there would be a movie version was inevitable. The decidedly non-kosher casting of Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson was not. The two WASPy leads make no sense as the real Ephron and Bernstein. The book's ethnic flavor is lost, along with its roman-à-clef allure. Eventually, though, you realize that director Mike Nichols and screenwriter Ephron (who also wrote Nichols' Silkwood) wanted it that way. They are after something deeper here than the tale of one wronged wife who uses her rapier wit to bloody her rat husband. The emphasis now is on how hard it is to sustain a modern marriage when you toss in the grenades of career, friends, children and temptations to infidelity. When as a tart-tongued magazine food writer, meets Nicholson, a womanizing Washington, D.C. columnist, neither is blind to the other's failings as a potential mate. Streep's father, beautifully played by Steven (Yentl) Hill, has to cajole her to the altar. But the pair's attraction is never in doubt. Both Streep and Nicholson seem palpably turned on by the other's wit and energy. Then marriage and parenthood slowly work changes. She enjoys the everyday details of householding, he does not (watching Nicholson struggling to read Beatrix Potter to his tot is a howl). When he begins slipping out with an undersecretary's wife (the stunning Karen Akers), Streep (again pregnant) takes the baby to her father's apartment in New York. After a reconciliation attempt flounders because of Nicholson's continued cheating, she bashes his face with a key-lime pie. Nichols' knack for finding the sting in every joke remains unparalleled. But oddly the film is most affecting when Streep stops trying for laughs or sympathy. In the hospital for the birth of her second baby, she and the husband who no longer figures in her future recall the more promising day when their first child was born. With heart piercing candor, the measure is taken of what gets lost in a marriage. Oscar nominations seem assured for Streep and Nicholson, who have never opened up more emotionally onscreen. You won't be able to get them or this hilarious, heartbreaking film out of your system. (R)

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