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.


Nostalgia Kinky said...

Awesome post that really makes me want to see this film again. I will have to see if I can find a used VHS online somewhere.
I'm kind of a Bogdanovich fanatic and I love how you were able to pinpoint all the similarities here.
I pretty much agree with everything you have written here. I think Sharon Stone is particularly great in this role, and O'Neal and Long give two of their best performances.
I just love Drew...just love her and remember this as being the best of her early work performance wise.
Great post...I am adding this link over at Moon as well.

TALKING MOVIEzzz said...
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Nostalgia Kinky said...

Here's an article concerning that DVD release...Great news!


Anonymous said...

Terrific article, Peel. There are so many disparate elements there that it seems like they could have made three or four versions of Irreconcilable Differences. I remember it being promoted as a cute kid movie and am surprised to hear it was a True Hollywood Story type deal with coke snorting and movie references. Weird.

What annoys me about Hollywood tales is how dumb the "movie within a movie" usually is. Most writers follow the lead of Nancy Meyers and her husband and take the opportunity to jab the industry and show how dumb mainstream Hollywood movies are, ensuring their film becomes a dumb mainstream Hollywood movie too. Minor gripe maybe, but just once, I'd love to see a fake movie that was cool enough to be a real movie.

Ned Merrill said...

I remember watching this one quite a bit as a young lad when it seemed to play on HBO almost all the time, or at least when they weren't playing BEASTMASTER. Good to see that it will be coming to DVD, although since it's via Lionsgate there's always the question of whether it will be presented in its o.a.r. If they could skewer Bogdanovich in this film (and, I agree, they kicked him when he was down), imagine what kind of heartwarming film could be made about Ryan O'Neal and his family!

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...


That'll teach me not to just look the thing up on Amazon to see if it was coming out. Thanks for letting us know about that, Moviezzz. Oh well. But I'm glad you liked the piece, Jeremy, and happy to know that you remember the film fondly as well.


The whole concept of the movie within a movie is a tough one--if the movie really was that good, why wouldn't they just make it? In things like S.O.B. where it's obviously satire I can accept it pretty well and on ENTOURAGE it usually works best when we see nothing or next to nothing of the film. In this film ATLANTA is certainly supposed to be an out-of-control bad movie so the comedy does work. I'd actually be curious to hear what you'd think of this film, you might find it pretty interesting. Give it a try when it comes out on disc.


Yeah, my guard will be up when the disc comes out about the ratio. I can't even tell who owns it--the film opens with the Warner logo (there's dialogue over it, so maybe it would have to stay) but I'm guessing they were just the distributor. As for a similar film about the O'Neal clan, the thought of that really does add another dimension to this one. And the comedy in that version would definitely be considerably darker. But who could they ever get to play Leigh Taylor-Young?

Ned Merrill said...

I looked around a little after reading your article and it seems like Warner Bros. was the theatrical distributor while the film was produced independently. Vestron released the film on VHS and laserdisc.

Leigh Taylor-Young...just read up on her and had completely forgotten that Dey Young (ROCK 'N ROLL HIGH SCHOOL) was her younger sister. I hadn't realized she'd kept acting in soaps up until a few years ago.

After you cast her, you'd would have to come up with viable stand-ins for Ryan, Tatum, Griffin, Farrah, and, I guess, Bogdanovich once again.

TALKING MOVIEzzz said...
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Anonymous said...

I saw this one and FIRESTARTER during their respective runs (in the same theater) back in the day but your post makes me want to check back with BEST FRIENDS again! And S.O.B. This is odd being that I am not a fan of "Hollywood examines itself" pictures.

In a personal appearance last year, Bogdanovich said he felt betrayed by O'Neal for taking on this role, so there were hard feelings! He also related that he begged Bob Fosse to not make STAR 80. Understandable.

And may I open a can of worm by asking would it be so horrible to see this film full frame on dvd? Would the compositions truely be compromised? No offense!

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...


It almost seems like there would be too much about the O'Neal clan history to fit into a movie running just a few hours. Somehow, I can't imagine that Ryan would ever write an autobiography.


Disappointing, but I guess it's not too surprising. HIDING OUT? Really? Hmm, I haven't seen that one for a long time.

Captain Terrific--

Not horrible, but it's kind of a bummer. I'll still probably get it. S.O.B. is a favorite, but I haven't seen BEST FRIENDS in years. Now that you bring it up, it probably would be an interesting one to check out after seeing this one. That Bogdanovich comment you passed along is the first I'd ever heard of him saying anything about this film. I guess you can't blame him. Thanks very much for passing that along!