Well, that’s that. I didn’t pick this week’s theme, it picked me. If movies are supposed to expose truths about the human condition that are too hard for us to see when we are caught up in it, then this week’s theme should be eye-opening for me. I’ve seen a number of “Top Ten Divorce Movies” lists and they all include absolute garbage. This isn’t a top ten list of any sort, but it’s a week worth of movies that look at or skirt around people who are ending or have ended their marriages. I know, it’s a real upbeat week!
Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) dir. Robert Benton
The War of the Roses (1989) dir. Danny DeVito
Seems Like Old Times (1980) dir. Jay Sandrich
Le Divorce (2003) dir. James Ivory
Divorce Italian Style (1961) dir. Pietro Germi
In A Better World (2010) dir. Susanne Bier
A New Life (1988) dir. Alan Alda
Kramer vs. Kramer
It was probably a bad idea to start off with Kramer vs. Kramer since it’s probably the best divorce-themed movie ever made. Though the script was adapted from a book, Dustin Hoffman was going through a real-life divorce while the film was being made so he worked with the screenwriter and director to make everything feel more authentic. The film features a lot of improvisation from the leads and an unbelievably terrific performance by the child caught between his divorcing parents. The result is a beautiful, honest, painful look at what can happen when a marriage falls apart and a woman leaves her family behind.
I don’t have any kids (thank God) but I could certainly identify with Hoffman’s character when his ex-wife wanted to walk back into his life to gain custody of their child. He had to firmly remind her that she walked out.
The War of the Roses
I remembered most of this from seeing it in the theater, but I don’t remember Kathleen Turner’s character being so completely unlikable. Both she and Michael Douglas play unsympathetic leads in a twist on their Romancing the Stone chemistry. The comedy is pretty broad here but the non-physical abuse that the characters level on each other really stings. As the “war” escalated, I wanted to root for Mr. Rose because he was professing his love for his wife even as she was trying to kill him. She was absolutely right to want to fix her lot in life, but at some point it almost seemed like both characters should have learned their lesson. That’s the fun though, isn’t it–watching them rip their house and each other apart.
Danny DeVito uses one of the most boring and contrived framing devices ever to tell his story of marital collapse. I enjoyed him in the movie, but felt like the breaks in the narrative back to DeVito telling the story to a potential client were tedious.
Seems Like Old Times
Though this screwball comedy isn’t exactly about divorce, a previous marriage between Chevy Chase and Goldie Hawn factors into almost every scene. It’s more of a film about what people are like after they have shared (and lost) that deep and sacred bond as husband and wife. The film doesn’t do much to explain why the two split though it seems pretty clear that Chase is a consummate screwup and Hawn is drawn to something more adult. Her new husband played as a career-minded stiff by Charles Grodin isn’t awful, but he’s nowhere near as fun as Chase and the movie reminds you of that at every turn.
I wonder how many people get to this stage post-marriage where they can laugh with each other and remember the good reasons that they got together in the first place.
This is a messy, middling film with too many characters, too many distractions, and uneven performances. However, it hits a couple of the actual divorce notes right. Naomi Watts comes home to find her French husband packed and walking out the door. He’s leaving without any explanation or provocation. It turns out he’s gone and done the most French thing possible and he’s fallen madly in love with a mistress. If the film had excised Kate Hudson’s character and the subplot about a painting that may or may not be worth a fortune, it could have allowed Watts to really work at conveying the emotional devastation of being blindsided. She does a good job with the few scenes she has, but too often the film meanders to other stories that don’t work.
Divorce Italian Style
I wasn’t expecting to laugh out loud at this 1961 Italian comedy but I did and it was damn funny. That’s not to say that it has the energy and constant stream of gags of something more slapstick, but it’s a wry film about a man who needs to leave his wife of 12 years to pursue the teenage girl he’s got his eye on. Since a true divorce is really out of the question in Catholic southern Italy in the era, he hatches a plan to kill his wife in such a way that he will serve only a minimum sentence and get out in time to marry someone new. It all goes about as it should right down to the perfect ending. I enjoyed this one a lot, even if it was not much more than a character study about people who should not be married.
In A Better World
This isn’t strictly speaking a divorce-themed movie but divorce does loom in the background. Instead, it’s a film about wanting to hurt people because you have been hurt, and divorce works well as a conduit for that theme.
I saw this film less than 24 hours after news broke that Osama bin Laden had been killed and watching it in that context was revelatory. I’ve seen a dozen or more vengeance movies in the last couple of months and none of them drove the point home about the futility of revenge more than this one. It might even seem a little heavy handed if it weren’t for the fact that it perfectly captures a lot of the sadness and mania and frustration that was going around in the wake of that news.
The point here is that the constant game of getting back at the people who got you always exacts a toll. The characters in this Oscar-winner are well-drawn and complex. From the kid who is angry at his father for letting his mother die to the father of another boy who works as a doctor in the middle of a war-torn African village, to the mother of a boy who is accidentally injured, every character has a reason to be angry and a reasonable excuse for striking back in some way. The film beautifully plays out all of these scenarios so that the audience can see the broad spectrum of experiences that its theme covers.
A New Life
Alan Alda’s drama/comedy was an apt way to wind up the week. After all, divorce doesn’t mean closing the book on one’s life–a lesson that has been hard for me to learn. Alda’s character Steve and his wife Jackie split at the beginning of the film in a scene that mirrored some of the absurdity that I experienced at the end of my marriage. From there, he’s faced with entering the dating world as an older man who hasn’t thought about dating for 26 years. On a much, much smaller time scale, I can relate. As it turned out, A New Life was one of my favorite picks this week because it dealt fairly with some of the anger and sadness without giving in to all of that. It followed two adults trying to set off in new directions without being entirely sure what they want or need. It was not not one of the better-crafted films on this week’s docket but it felt honest in a way that stuff like Le Divorce did not.
Other Movie Weeks in 2011:
Beat Takeshi Week
French Action Week
Childhood Fascination Week
Australian Rules Week
Black History Week
Recent Westerns Week
Non-Godzilla Kaiju Week
Woody Allen Week
Secret Agent Week
Asian Action Week