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.