Tuesday, February 17, 2009
Not Into Parenting Right Now
Just as Ryan O’Neal’s career was fizzling and Shelley Long’s was on the rise, Drew Barrymore’s was at a post-E.T. high, starring in the Stephen King dud FIRESTARTER as well as the comedy about a girl who divorces her parents, 1984’s IRRECONCILABLE DIFFERENCES. Except that’s not really what the film, written by then-married team of Charles Shyer and Nancy Meyers and directed by Shyer, was about. It’s actually kind of impressive how much of the finished product isn’t at all what was sold at the time and though it holds up pretty well today as a comedy about what can happen to people once they hit L.A., it’s more interesting to try to figure out the parlor game of who is really being portrayed in it.
Nine year-old Casey Brodsky (Drew Barrymore) takes her parents, the divorced Albert Brodsky (Ryan O’Neal) and Lucy Van Patten Brodsky (Shelley Long), to court, suing them for divorce. While on the stand, each parent tells their history together which began when Albert, on his way to a film professor job at UCLA (after writing his NYU thesis, entitled “Phenomenological analysis of sexual overtones in the early films of Ernst Lubitsch”), met and fell in love with Lucy while hitchhiking out to L.A. Once there, after having daughter Casey, Albert’s vast film knowledge catches the attention of film producer David Kessler (Sam Wanamaker) but when he is recruited to try his hand at rewriting a moribund script finds himself making no progress until he convinces Lucy to work on it with him. The eventual film, which Albert directs, is a huge hit and while Lucy bears some jealousy at her husband getting all the attention, the real trouble comes when Albert hires beautiful unknown Blake Chandler (Sharon Stone, getting an “And Introducing” credit even though this wasn’t her first film) as the lead in his next film and winds up falling for her. Lucy, extremely bitter, leaves Albert, but the tables of success are soon turned and young Casey winds up caught in the middle of the two warring parents, which of course leads to her eventually taking drastic action.
“Mommy, this isn’t what the movie is supposed to be.” That’s not an exact quote, but it is something I remember a little girl sitting behind me saying about twenty minutes in when it was quickly becoming clear that the film, after an opening that seems designed to get any rational adult to flee the theater, was instead focusing on the story of the characters played by O’Neal and Long. Nope, this wasn’t really a kiddie comedy starring Drew Barrymore after all. What, that little girl didn’t appreciate a movie that contained references to Ben Hecht? Kids, what are you gonna do. In spite of that response, what IRRECONCILABLE DIFFERENCES contains is a considerably more interesting comedy than would probably be expected. As I got older, I realized that it was also a not-so-thinly veiled expose of the marriage of Peter Bogdanovich and first wife Polly Platt. Much like the director of TARGETS, THE LAST PICTURE SHOW and PAPER MOON among others, Ryan O’Neal’s Albert Brodsky is a walking encyclopedia of film knowledge who drops old Hollywood references into conversation (that’s where we hear about how fast Ben Hecht wrote NOTHING SACRED) and charms his way through the Bel Air party circuit leading to a huge success that his wife is a key part of. And, once an actress who the director casts in a film comes between them (the real life version of that would be Cybill Shepherd, of course) that of course leads to the break up of the marriage and the director taking on material designed to spotlight that new girl which turns into a huge embarrassing flop. The details are different, but the broad strokes are definitely there and the payoff to this, the unauthorized GONE WITH THE WIND musical remake titled ATLANTA, is a pretty dead-on skewering of all the out-of-control productions of the late 70s combining Bogdanovich’s own musical disaster AT LONG LAST LOVE with what play like stories that come straight from the set of HEAVEN’S GATE. The plot point of Albert sinking his own money into this seems lifted from the THEY ALL LAUGHED fiasco (a good movie, it should be noted) and with that only a few years in the past at the time combined with the Dorothy Stratten tragedy almost makes it seem like this was kicking the guy when he was down. There have also been the occasional rumblings over the years saying that Polly Platt, by all accounts a key creative force on the director’s early films, was such a crucial component to their success that he was never able to recapture that glory once they split. Of course, while this film makes it clear that Shelley Long’s character is one of the main reasons of this fictional couple’s success, reading anything more into that is really just guesswork. Sometimes it’s tough to tell just how to take some of these details anyway—certainly Platt did very well for herself as a Hollywood figure through the years as a producer though was never particularly known by the general public. For that matter, when we see Sharon Stone’s Blake Chandler on the set of ATLANTA doing coke before a take, are we supposed to take that to mean that Cybill Shepherd did coke? Does that cross any sort of line? Even stranger is how Bogdanovich is actually name checked during a Rex Reed news report in the middle of the film—I guess if William Randolph Hearst could get a mention in CITIZEN KANE, then this sort of thing is acceptable. Put that way, maybe even Bogdanovich himself would appreciate the irony. While neither I nor that little girl naturally had no awareness of any of this when I saw the movie as a kid, the similarities did not go totally unnoticed at the time—Roger Ebert mentions the similarity in passing in his review and People Magazine criticized the film for being too much of a “party game disguised as a movie.”
There isn’t very much I could find out there on the inception of this film or even what kind of response it may have gotten from some of the people “portrayed”—Shyer and Meyers don’t seem to have ever worked with any of them professionally though it seems like they know what they’re talking about. If anything, the modest budget the film was presumably made on shows at times—we hear much more about Albert’s success than we ever see of it and the story of Bogdanovich is such that it feels like some of the satire could go even further—not doing anything with his stints guest-hosting “The Tonight Show” seems like a missed opportunity—but maybe the film should simply be looked at as an earnest examination by the husband-wife team who wrote it of what living and working in Hollywood can do to families and their children. It sounds like it could also be about some of the fears the then-married couple was working through—“I’m not into parenting right now,” says one bit player and it sounds like something that might have once been said at a Brentwood party. The truth that can be felt under the bitterness that extends through the final sections definitely feels more genuine than the plastic dramatics of any of the subsequent films Shyer and Meyers have made either together or separate (I just feel like saying that to me there has rarely been a worse film released by a major studio than I LOVE TROUBLE). As a result, IRRECONCILABLE DIFFERENCES holds up pretty well as a breezily entertaining serio-comic look at family relations and divorce amidst those who work in the film business and what it can do to the children the parents pit against each other. Anyone out there who also appreciates that Ben Hecht reference would probably like the film as well.
Adding to the odd collision of film and reality is the presence of Ryan O’Neal, star of Bogdanovich’s WHAT’S UP DOC?, PAPER MOON and NICKELODEON and pretty much the director’s alter ego in a few of those films. So he’s essentially playing his former boss and admirably doing it with what feels like little hesitation. As a result, he seems to nail the rags-to-riches-to-rags persona he’s portraying with continually sharp comic timing--for whatever reason when he mumbles “I need a haircut,” while at the end of his rope shooting ATLANTA it’s a truly nutty moment that gets me to laugh out loud. In 1989 he co-starred with, of all people, Cybill Shepherd in the comedy CHANCES ARE so presumably there were no hard feelings. Or maybe it just never came up. Shelley Long, maybe slightly underrated as an actress because she never became the huge star she tried to be after CHEERS, gives what is probably her best big-screen performance here, getting her own character’s gradual transformation just right. Sharon Stone is very funny as well, particularly during the ATLANTA section and even goes topless at one point, not something you normally expect to see in a comedy marketed for children. Rounding out the Oscar nominees present in the cast, David Paymer makes an early appearance as Albert Brodsky’s lawyer in the framing sequences.
Drew Barrymore is very cute, even though it does feel slightly strange to see a sight gag made out of her guzzling champagne when we know what she went through at her young age. But even at that early age she already seems to have an awareness of this world and when her role becomes more prominent in the latter half it does give the film more depth than it had earlier on. It feels like she earns the chance to get the big speech that wraps things up. The Hollywood stuff is probably what is most memorable about the entire movie, but even so the whole thing remains surprisingly enjoyable and even sweet. O’Neal’s character muses early on that “people don’t like to leave a theater feeling empty” and IRRECONCILABLE DIFFERENCES, while not perfect, is good enough that it doesn’t happen. Plus it ends with a Frank Sinatra song over the credits, so it gets extra points for that. The film doesn’t seem to have ever been released on DVD anywhere in the world so it’s pretty much forgotten these days, an ending that this film about Hollywood doesn’t really deserve. It would be nice to get a new film from Peter Bogdanovich sooner or later as well.