Irreconcilable Differences

Director: Charles Shyer
Ryan O'Neal, Shelley Long, Drew Barrymore

Looking back at my childhood, I realize after a little thought that I was pretty lucky to have the kind of childhood I had. The biggest reasons for this were the people who raised me during my childhood, which were my parents. Of course, one of my parents happened to be my father. While my father was a somewhat reserved individual, I knew I could always come to him if I had a question or I needed help. Even if my question was something along the lines of, "What does 'being incontinent' mean?" or "What does S.O.B. stand for?", my father would tell me, not pulling back in the least his explanation. Then, of course, there was my mother. My mother was always my biggest supporter when I was growing up. When our family first got a VCR, I quickly discovered the joys of various B movies from various video stores in my town. My mother saw this and encouraged it. I remember very well many times coming home on Fridays after a tough week at school, and being greeted by my mother, who had earlier in the day gone to one of my town's video stores and had rented one or two of the latest B movies that had hit the store's shelves. And it turned out my mother and I sometimes had the same sense of humor when it came to B movies. One summer, when I went to the local corner store and rented The Groove Tube, my mother insisted on watching it with me, and despite its raunchy content she really enjoyed it. Another time, after I taped the unintentionally funny Lou Ferrigno sword and sorcery movie The Seven Magnificent Gladiators off of late night TV, my mother insisted that I not watch it until she had a spare moment so she could watch it with me.

You are probably wondering why I have just told you about the kind of parents that I had. Well, part of the reason is to explain why I feel I had it pretty good with my parents growing up despite the occasional disagreement. And that is to illustrate why I feel I might not be qualified to talk about the subject matter that the movie I am reviewing here - Irreconcilable Differences - covers. That subject matter has to do with children who decide to sever ties with their parents before they come of age. Since I realize I had it pretty good for the most part with my parents while growing up, it's harder for me to determine why some minors would want to split from their mother and father. All I can do is try, relying on what I have gathered from various observations over the years. One such observation that has stuck with me ever since the first time I made it came from film critic Roger Ebert. In his infamous savage review of the Elijah Wood-starring family comedy North - which concerned a young boy who decides to sever ties with his parents - Ebert wrote, "This idea is deeply flawed. Children do not lightly separate from their parents - and certainly not on the evidence provided here, where the great parental sin is not paying attention to their kid at the dinner table." I have to agree with Ebert on this. There are situations where things are really bad between a kid and his or her parents, and the kid would not want to be ripped away. I've personally heard of police reports where police arrive at a home to arrest and lock up a parent who has been abusing his or her child, and the abused child is all the same greatly upset and pleads with the police to not take away their parent.

On the other hand, there are definitely some children who are very smart for their age, and after a lot of intelligent thought do realize that they are in a situation that could be a heck of a lot better, and do take steps to try and improve their situation. Some children do run away from home, Irreconcilable Differencesand it says a lot that these kids have concluded that street life is a lot better than life with their parents. Then there are some children who choose a legal route to split from their parents. The legal term for this is "emancipation". I've been curious for some time about this legal form of child-parent separation, especially since it happens so rarely and finding information on it has proved difficult. So part of me was intrigued about Irreconcilable Differences, which deals with the subject. On the other hand, it promised to be a comic look at the process just like North - and that was an awful movie. I finally decided to see it because of its interesting cast. The movie consists of a present day court case with multiple lengthy flashbacks mixed in that tell us what has happened in the past ten or so years. In the early 1970s, Albert Brodsky (Ryan O'Neal, Wild Rovers), a Peter Bogdanavich-like wannabe filmmaker, heads to Hollywood with dreams of being a major player in the film industry. Along the way to the west coast, he meets Lucy Van Patten (Shelley Long, Cheers), an aspiring writer. There is an instant click between the two, and Lucy abandons her fiancÚ to join Albert on both his journey and in matrimony. In Hollywood, Albert works hard to get his big break, and eventually manages, with some uncredited assistance from Lucy, to direct a box office success. But this turned out to be the beginning of the end of the marriage, with Albert becoming a workaholic who neglects both Lucy and their young daughter Casey (Drew Barrymore, E.T. The Extra Terrestrial). Albert and Lucy eventually get divorced, with Albert finding a new love with a young woman named Blake Chandler (Sharon Stone, Basic Instinct), and Lucy, still seething from the divorce, getting revenge by writing a best-selling novel about her relationship with Albert. Lucy still is angry, however, and for that matter Albert is angry as well, his anger increasing because of new problems in his film career. The lashing out at each other upsets Casey, stuck in the middle, more and more each day. One day, she finally has had enough. She gets a lawyer (Allen Garfield, Busting), and with his assistance, sues to divorce her parents... which causes a firestorm in the media.

I have a feeling that some readers who read the above paragraph may be wondering about something specific about Irreconcilable Differences. That being just what audience the movie is aimed at. On one hand, there is the presence of a young Drew Barrymore and the theme of a child fighting back, which may suggest the movie is aimed at kids and their parents. On the other hand, there is the presence of Ryan O'Neal and Shelley Long and the subjects of fame and relationships, which may suggest the movie is more aimed at a more mature audience. To determine what audience there may be for the movie, I decided to look carefully at two aspects of the movie - the humorous moments as well as the serious moments. I'll start with the serious side of the movie. The drama in Irreconcilable Differences happens to be very well done. While the movie has some easy targets that another filmmaker might have emphasized (like the media coverage of the divorce), director and co-writer Charles Shyer (Father Of The Bride) opts for a low key yet believable tone for the sober portions of the movie. Shyer is most interested in the evolving and later disintegrating relationship between Albert and Lucy. We get to see how they fall in love in a way that is utterly convincing. And we get to see how the relationship eventually crumbles also in a manner that doesn't have us in the audience questioning just what happened. This is interesting, but there's additional interest further on in the movie. We see that these two people, though split apart, still deep down have some feelings towards each other. Which is natural - they were married for almost ten years, and they had a child together. You can't completely break apart after things like that have happened in a relationship. Along this journey, there are some interesting character moments that further flesh out these people. For example, when Lucy realizes that the marriage is irreparable, she immediately packs her bags and tells Albert in a tough tone, "I'll live." But minutes later, driving away in her car, she bursts into tears.

So what audience will be able to appreciate the dramatic portion of the movie? Actually, I think that both adults and kids will like what they are seeing. Kids will be able to follow what's going on very easily. Even when Irreconcilable Differences gets to showing what goes on in the industry in Hollywood, it remains at a level where no real previous insider knowledge is needed to understand things. At the same time, the movie doesn't insult the intelligence of adult viewers. Adults will be able to recognize and believe many situations and characters from various experiences they have had in their lives. For that matter, so will a lot of kids. But don't think that I am portraying Irreconcilable Differences as some kind of deep drama. As I indicated earlier, a large part of the movie is devoted to comedy. Shyer directs most of the comedy in a way that is low key as much of the drama. Don't get me wrong, there are some big laughs in the movie. Sharon Stone creates a hilarious (and gross) sight gag at the Brodsky dinner table, and the portion of the movie where Albert directs an out of control musical remake of Gone With The Wind has some real hilarity. But for the most part, the humor in the movie is both gentle and realistic. For example, when Albert and Lucy first meet, Albert rambles about his writing work, and Lucy (who clearly does not understand what he's talking about) struggles to both be polite and keep up appearances that she's not an idiot. That moment made me smile, because it reminded me of times in my own life I've been in a similar situation to Lucy's. Later in the movie, when Lucy's tell-all book hits the number one spot on the charts, upon hearing the news she immediately calls in her servants so she can tell them the news. Who among us hasn't bragged about success when we've been lucky enough to have it?

Needless to say, I think kids will be smiling with their parents when watching the humorous moments of Irreconcilable Differences. Both age groups will be able to recognize "real life" in the humor. Also, despite the darker portions of the movie, the central characters remain palatable throughout. A big reason for this is because of the script, of course; even when Albert and Lucy start to fight like dogs in front of their daughter, there is an undercurrent of absurdness to these moments that doesn't make us squirm in our seats. Also, we never see Albert or Lucy as bad guys. Yes, they are sometimes neglectful of their daughter, and sometimes they act childish to the other, but we see good sides to their characters elsewhere in the movie. But another reason why I didn't find Albert and Lucy repulsive has to be the actors who are playing them. Ryan O'Neal and Shelley Long find the right tone for their characters in every scene. Even when their characters express harsh emotions such as anger and revenge, you can still sense a little warmth and humanity to their words. You'll be rooting for them to come to their senses and fully reconnect to their daughter. Incidentally, the nine year-old Drew Barrymore does a fine job as the daughter, coming across as believably intelligent for her age and not annoyingly precocious. Kids will especially like her scenes because her character is fully in control in a sea of chaos, and it's another reason why they will like this movie. While I would feel comfortable showing Irreconcilable Differences to my kids (if I had any), more prudish parents may object to some more adult-oriented material in the movie, such as one scene where Sharon Stone takes off her top. But I think that screening the movie to kids may not only entertain them, but flatter them, since kids often crave to be treated as adults.

(Posted November 5, 2023)

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See also: Kenny & Company, Movers And Shakers, No Dessert Dad