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Kyle Smith (Twitter: @rkylesmith) is critic-at-large for National Review, theater critic for The New Criterion and the author of the novels Love Monkey and A Christmas Caroline. Type a title in the box above to locate a review.

Buy Love Monkey for $4! "Hilarious"--Maslin, NY Times. "Exceedingly readable and wickedly funny romantic comedy"--S.F. Chronicle. "Loud and brash, a helluva lot of fun"--Entertainment Weekly. "Engaging romp, laugh-out-loud funny"-CNN. "Shrewd, self-deprecating, oh-so-witty. Smith's ruthless humor knows no bounds"--NPR

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    “Irreconcilable Differences” on DVD

    By kyle | April 29, 2009

    If it weren’t such a downer, I think “Irreconcilable Differences,” which Lionsgate has just issued on DVD, would have been remembered as one of the great romantic comedies of the 1980s. The film came out in 1984, just five years before “When Harry Met Sally,” but it still bears the gloomy stamp of 1970s cinema. Imagine if Harry and Sally had gotten married at the end of their cross-country car trip, moved to LA in act II and become fabulously rich and successful in showbiz.

    Shelley Long gave probably her finest performance as Lucy, a high-strung Sally type who picks up Albert, a hippie cinema professor (Ryan O’Neal) who is trying to romantically hitchhike across the country in 1973. By the end of the trip, they’re enjoying a slow dance in a roadside bar. Albert is always blathering about film history, being fascinated by the Lubitsch touch, and this heartwarming but otherwise unremarkable slow dance scene deploys a bit of Lubitsch magic when the rug is pulled out: Lucy’s car is suddenly stolen. This moment of stress at first threatens to rip the couple apart, but the anger gets transmuted to lust, deftly and plausibly.

    I like the way the spaces open up around the two characters — at first they’re stuck in her crappy car together, then they’re in a small bar and a dingy motel room, but pretty soon, after a chance encounter with a mogul (Sam Wanamaker) wins both of them entree into the movie industry, they’re in vast, breathtaking, overdecorated spaces like a Bel Air mansion. The two of them gradually lose their focus on each other. The world gets to them, amplifies and projects their flaws. As if on a big screen.

    The two of them lose each other when a young siren (Sharon Stone, in her first substantial part, doing a superb and sexy enfant sauvage act) literally moves in with them. And moves in on him.

    The story is narrated by the couple’s daughter, Drew Barrymore, who is telling us their background (though she wasn’t present for much of it) as part of a court case in which she seeks to become a liberated minor, divorcing her parents in favor of their maid, the only person who has been attentive and kind to her. The bookending of the movie by the kid has the effect of reminding us that we know how it’s going to end, and yet that we really don’t. Perhaps the most Lubitsch-ian moment is when one spouse, bankrupt, moves out of an elaborate mansion, which comes decorated with twin white Rolls-Royces. Pan over to the other spouse, who is now moving into the same place.

    There is a marvelous balance to the film in that we have an equal rooting interest in each of the flawed lead characters. Though Lucy could easily become a sort of billboard for feminist grievance–she gets dumped for a much younger woman, a typical plot point in many a liberated 70s movie–she isn’t innocent. Even before she finds herself cast aside, she has grown haggard, tired, work-obsessed. Director Charles Shyer tells us all we need to know in a scene in which Long, who looks like a vampire, sits in a restaurant with the radiant Stone. As Albert (O’Neal) lights her cigarette with infinite care, it becomes clear that the two are sharing much more than a few smokes. After being dumped she becomes shrewish, porky, and obsessive.

    Albert, though a paragon of 70s Hollywood soullessness–there are scenes reminiscent of the ones in which Steve Martin becomes a spoiled millionaire in “The Jerk” — never quite manages to lose our sympathy. We can still see the movie lover, the intensely dedicated artist, even as he directs a single disastrous (and very funny) scene of a musical version of “Gone With the Wind.” That Shyer co-wrote the movie with his then-partner Nancy Meyers (the two subsquently split) may be the reason why the film never picks a side. It isn’t a mere satire that picks no side at all and invites us to simply revel in our superiority.

    If the film had managed to choose a brighter path in the end, I think the audience would have annointed it as a classic, but it’s determined to wrap up the 70s way. The ending isn’t tragic, but it is exhausted. When Lucy and Albert watch their little girl give a heartbreaking little speech in court about how two people should be kind and respectful to each other, even if they don’t love each other anymore, the moment seems to reach past the idea of entertaining the audience. Instead it wants to change the audience, to instruct it a little after a decade in which people telling each other they could have it all –free love, cocaine, whatever — led to skyrocketing divorce, shattered emotional lives and healthy business for psychoanalysts. That the film seems inspired by the true-life love triangle of egghead film historian Peter Bogdanovich, his producing partner on “The Last Picture Show” and wife Polly Platt, and his star and muse Cybill Shepherd gives it a painful grounding in reality. The subsequent history of Bogdanovich, who refers to “Irreconcilable Differences” as “a terrible movie,” indicates that if anything the film is too kind to him.

    Topics: DVD, Movies | 11 Comments »

    11 Responses to ““Irreconcilable Differences” on DVD”

    1. sori*a_d Says:
      April 29th, 2009 at 7:12 pm

      Intriguing, I’ll check this out on DVD. Usually loathe romantic comedies, that most cliched of all genres. Here’s a question for you: what is a romantic comedy that stands the test of time?

    2. kyle Says:
      April 29th, 2009 at 7:44 pm

      Oh, there are lots of terrific romantic comedies that bear repeated viewings. Many Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn movies–“Charade,” “The Awful Truth,” “His Girl Friday,” “Roman Holiday,” “Indiscreet,” “Father Goose,” “The Grass Is Greener,” etc., the Lubitsch and Billy Wilder and Preston Sturges greats, all the way up to the Woody Allen classics, the three best Nora Ephron movies (I think “Sleepless” is the weakest of the three but “When Harry” and “You’ve Got Mail” are superb) and lately the Judd Apatow and Richard Curtis films. When you say cliched, I guess you mean the structure is that boy meets girl, they have various quarrels and things keeping them apart, they finally get together, they’re torn asunder seemingly forever at the end of act II and they go in for the clinch at the end.

      I don’t really hold structure against a movie. Most movies are highly structured along classical lines, lines that work. But it makes all the difference in the world what’s going on within the structure–whether the characters and situations and hookups and breakups are credible, and whether the movie is actually funny. I suppose ‘Irreconcilable Differences’ is so downbeat you could barely call it a romantic comedy.

    3. KS Says:
      April 29th, 2009 at 7:56 pm

      I’ll check out “Irreconcilable Differences” too. I don’t know if Shelley Long regretted leaving “Cheers,” but she always seemed to belong on television to me.

    4. kishke Says:
      April 29th, 2009 at 8:39 pm

      Groundhog Day is a romantic comedy that certainly stands the test of repeated viewings.

    5. sori*a_d Says:
      April 29th, 2009 at 9:41 pm

      Fair point. As Bananarama said in that decade they call the ’80s, “It ain’t what you do it’s the way that you do it.” I actually like the Cary Grant/ Audrey Hepburn films you mention.. Still, I think Hollywood hasn’t yielded a proper rom-com for the ages in years.. Please don’t say “Knocked Up” is a contender–I thought it was moderately funny at best, and could never understand the mass hysteria about its magic greatness.. Ditto “Juno” (brr!). To me, the closet Hollywood came to a proper, rom-com romp was with Tony Gilroy’s “Duplicity”.. Super-duper fun flick,
      can we not agree that Julia Roberts and Clive Owen are our contempo stand-ins for Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy? Predictably, the film bombed at the box office..

    6. kyle Says:
      April 29th, 2009 at 9:47 pm

      Heh. Maybe, on Roberts-Hepburn. I was just looking at the list of Kate Hepburn movies. I had a hard time identifying five that I liked. Bringing Up Baby is nowhere near as good as the other screwball comedies of the 1930s. It’s actually one of the least funny Cary Grant comedies of the period. “African Queen” is an awful movie. The Spencer Tracy movies are grindingly obvious, bumper stickers disguised as scripts (most especially “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” which is unwatchable and embarrassing.) “On Golden Pond” was piece of Hallmark Theatre pap. “The Philadelphia Story” is a bore. I had to go all the way up to “The Lion in Winter” to find a truly great movie that starred Katharine Hepburn.

    7. Hunter Tremayne Says:
      April 30th, 2009 at 3:47 am

      Good lord. First Kyle begins the week by claiming to love the execrable Miami Vice and the pitiful Nacho Libre. Now he’s dissing “The African Queen” which is one of the best adventure movies ever made, praises the awful “You’ve Got Mail” over the sublime “Bringing Up Baby,” heaps scorn on the Hepburn/Tracy pictures and says he would rather watch studio pap like “Father Goose” than the peerless “The Philadelphia Story.” I can only put these bizarre choices of his down to a mind addled by food poisoning, for if they stand, they would make him notorious as the movie critic with the worst taste in movies in recorded history.

    8. kyle Says:
      April 30th, 2009 at 10:04 am

      And yet you take time to check in on this blog 12 times a day and post hundreds of comments on it. As Ben Kenobi put it: “Who’s the fool? The fool, or the fool who follows him?”

    9. Hunter Tremayne Says:
      April 30th, 2009 at 7:49 pm

      Ben Kenobi: “For over a thousand generations, the Jedi Knights were the guardians of peace and justice in the Old Republic. Before the dark times, before the Repulicans.”

    10. sori*a_d Says:
      May 1st, 2009 at 2:09 pm

      Guys: no Star Wars koans can be weaponized during an argument without scaring off this blog any potential readers of the female gender.. =)

      Hunter, I quite disagree with your premise above–I believe you can relish the work of a pop culture critic whilst simultaneously disagreeing with her/his implied value judgments. I am nowhere near Kyle on the ideological spectrum but I enjoy his reviews and assorted kvetches enormously and am always interested in what he has to say. Consuming only criticism that validates your own worldviews is.. completely boring.

    11. Brenda Kilgour Says:
      September 18th, 2013 at 2:27 pm

      It’s one of those films you used to find playing at 10am on a Saturday on HBO when you were out late the night before. It goes down so easy that it’s equally easy to overlook how well written and crafted it is. The “Atlanta” musical scene alone is worth the investment of time. Ryan O’Neal may be one of Hollywood’s all-time horror shows, but he sure was able to pull off the sensitive pretty boy for as long as he had the looks. I guess that’s what they call acting.