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Retro Rental: Remembering Nora Ephron With ‘My Blue Heaven’

My Blue Heaven
Warner Bros.

[Each week, inspired by what's in theaters or in the news or even just by random firings of neurons, 'Retro Rental,' by film critic James Rocchi, looks at an older film on disc or download that links up to the here-and-now ...]

For a while on Tuesday this week, the Web and Twitter were racing back and forth to be wrong faster, as they so often do — saying that screenwriter Nora Ephron was dead when she wasn’t, or wasn’t dead when she was soon going to be. Finally, ultimately, we learned that Ephron died at 71 of complications from Leukemia, and at least one friend swears she saw a web comment asking if Nora Ephron was related, in some way, to Zac Efron. The fact is that even if you don’t know Ephron’s name, you know her work. She wrote, or directed, or wrote and directed, films like ‘Sleepless in Seattle,’ ‘Silkwood,’ ‘You’ve Got Mail,’ ‘When Harry Met Sally,’ ‘Julie and Julia,’ ‘Michael,’ ‘Heartburn’ and more. She was a writer, and a director, and she was around for some of the 20th century’s more interesting moments, from the ’60s to Feminism to Watergate (her second husband was Carl Bernstein, of ‘Woodward and…’ fame), and then she made movies. Good ones.

Ephron had a sort of New York Zen to her, a phrase as full of contradictions, and therefore as wonderful, as she was. She couldn’t understand living in a place where you couldn’t just have everything delivered; the world was an amazing place, to Ephron, and New York was even better. She  understood that the small stuff was, often, the good stuff, and that you could ask for the world as a person and as a woman and as a human being, but that you could also take it, bit by bit, in small moments like eating a great sandwich or over-tipping someone or learning how to debone a chicken, as well. Or, as Ephron said in her novel ‘Heartburn,’ “I look out the window and I see the lights and the skyline and the people on the street rushing around looking for action, love, and the world’s greatest chocolate chip cookie, and my heart does a little dance.”

It would be easy to write about ‘When Harry Met Sally’ — a film that, in my youth, taught me good and bad things about the nature of love and friendship — or ‘Heartburn’ or ‘Sleepless in Seattle.’ But the first movie I threw on to think about Ephron’s gifts — real ones, not just a capacity for snappy dialogue but also a capacity for real wisdom beneath it and for understanding that snappy dialogue is, all too often, what we slap up in front of pain — was ‘My Blue Heaven.’

Released in 1990, ‘My Blue Heaven” has an irresistible comedy pitch — reluctantly placed into Witness Protection, a New York gangster winds up re-starting his old career in peaceful Southwestern suburbia; the FBI agent who needs him to testify in a career-making, racket-breaking case has to keep him out of trouble. The mobster is Steve Martin; the FBI Man, Rick Moranis. But the real reason I thought about Nora Ephron and ‘My Blue Heaven’ specifically is because the film’s strange genesis — none of which you sense in its grace and good humor — kind of summed up her life.

Ephron was married to Nicholas Pileggi, who wrote ‘Wiseguys,’ the book that later became the film ‘Goodfellas.’ Surrounded by gangster life and gangster tales and gangster mythos, Ephron turned it into comedy. Like she did with love, like she did with divorce, like she did with being happy or disappointed or even with being sick. The characters in ‘My Blue Heaven’ were an even split of Ephron’s Id and Superego — Martin’s gangster had her joi de vivre and Moranis’ Fed has her sense of righteousness and confusion about other people’s choices.  And each character changes, to be sure, but they also stay the same — pretty much like real people, but with better dialogue, which is also a lot of what Ephron was going for in her work, and got.

The film as a whole sums up what she was about as well as anything could: You can enjoy your life, you can change your life, you can even enjoy changing it, and all along the way, it’ll probably be pretty funny. ‘My Blue Heaven’ works as a great comedy and as a suitable epitaph for Ephron, because as anyone who’s ever searched for the right cookie at the perfect time knows, now and then, Heaven is a place on Earth.

‘My Blue Heaven’ is available on DVD and streams on Amazon Prime

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