The 1984 comedy-drama Irreconcilable Differences doesn't exactly represent state-of-the-art filmmaking; it sometimes tilts from stinging psychological insight to sitcom-style yuks,the acting is occasionally flat, the heart-tugging transparent. The film is, one might say, stalkedby the shadow of mediocrity. IMDB users, to take one chunk of audience, agree, giving themovie a cumulative rating of 5.6.
And yet, I can't help but view the film as some sort of emotional masterpiece. Over the last25 years, I've seen the thing like eight times, forcing a succession of significant others to watchalong and pretend how fabulous they think it is. Certain movies, it would seem, just get underyour skin, so that something in their DNA works on your own.
Still, I am going to make the case that even if a majority of moviegoers don't experience themovie on a cellular level, it's nonetheless an overlooked gem, or at the very least the best romcom in which two of the genre's leading practitioners, Nancy Meyers and Drew Barrymore, have participated.
The film has two main themes going on: movie culture and dysfunctional families. Both havebeen fat, frequent targets on screen, but it's their intertwining here that makes for such acompelling narrative and carves out a unique niche among grander indictments of Hollywoodlike Sunset Boulevard and The Player. The story is esoteric in that its victim, theonly child of two industry egos, suffers in the rarefied world of high-stakes moviemaking, yet the story is familiar enough to anyone who's had a run-in with their local narcissist and wondered what it's like to be his kid. The psychological intelligence with which the husband and wife director-writer team of Charles Shyer and Nancy Meyers imbued the project is considerable, and even though there are moments of high satire to lessen the sting, the result is one of the most truthful, specific, and chilling portraits of bad parenting ever put on screen.
The movie's start is inauspicious. The silly introduction of a serious premise has little Casey(nine-year-old Drew Barrymore in a too-close-for-comfort role) suing her Hollywoodparents for divorce. Modest giggles brought on by the kid's plucky precociousness amid themedia circus ensue. But rather quickly, the film takes a nice turn when her father takes the standand states that he has a PhD thesis in cinema on the "semiological analysis of the sexualovertones in the early films of Ernst Lubitsch." It'sprecisely at that point you get the feeling you may actually be in for something more substantialthan advertised. The clunky framing device of the trial then gives way to essentially a longflashback, in which we witness the story of a nice, likable couple seduced by Hollywood andtransformed into self-involved monsters, in full view of their only child.
Ryan O'Neal gives a believable performance as Albert Brodsky, a film-scholar-turned-directorwith a story arc awfully similar to that of director Peter Bogdanovich. Brodsky is hitchhiking his way to California and a teaching position at UCLA, when in the middle of a driving rainstorm, he's picked up by Lucy (Shelley Long) en route to meet up with her fiancé. Long, in mid-Cheers form, is the analog to Bogdanovich's ex-wife, the screenwriter and production designer Polly Platt. The hypotenuse in that triangle, actress Cybill Shepherd, is represented here by a young Sharon Stone, with perhaps a dollop of centerfold-turned-actress Dorothy Stratten thrown in. (Years later, (Bogdanovich called the film "terrible" and "totally biased against me and Cybill.")
As Albert and Lucy drive cross-country, they start out bickering. But in a nice romanticsequence -- Lucy reading Albert her unpublished children's book, dancing in the lounge of aroadside motel, dissolving into mutual tears while watching a Spanish-language version ofAn Affair to Remember -- they fall in love.
Marriage and a child follow. But a big time producer named David Kessler (SamWanamaker), impressed by Albert's encyclopedic knowledge of film, takes him under his wingas a consultant. After experiencing a large dose of Hollywood shallowness at one of his parties, a prophetic Lucy says, "I don't want to turn into these people."
Eventually Kessler gives Albert a chance to write and direct. While Albert's discussing hisfirst script with Lucy, she off-handedly improves one of the scenes, and he convinces her to cowrite the film, which becomes a huge hit. But while searching for an ingénue for their follow-up project, he impetuously hires a beautiful but wild woman named Blake Chandler (Stone), whom he found working as a waitress at a hot dog stand. She moves in with the couple for round-the-clock coaching, Albert falls in love with her, and just like that he and Lucy are divorced.
The two then engage in a topsy-turvy battle of wills and careers, as Albert moves ontodirectorial stardom while Lucy falls into obscurity, her contribution to their movies completelyoverlooked. She makes a comeback, however, with a fictionalized tell-all book about theirmarriage, just as Albert's career hits the skids. But no matter which one's on top, their daughter is put in the middle, taking the brunt of their mutual recriminations. As the psychic wounds take apalpable toll on Casey, the film becomes a searing portrait of parental neglect, as well as adepiction of a codependent in the making.
The night that Lucy discovers her husband's affair, she grabs Casey and they drive off, butinstead of comforting her daughter, she breaks down in a self-indulgent panic. Later, shecontinually bashes Albert in front of Casey, while at the same time pumping her for informationabout Blake. Meanwhile, over at Albert's Hollywood mansion, his slavish devotion to his newwife leaves no room for his daughter. Finally, Casey is reduced to ping-ponging between them,forced to bear vicious messages from one to the other. Some of the exchanges between Caseyand her parents are particularly depressing:
Albert: What do you think of your old man? Be honest.
Casey: Daddy you know for a long time you didn't talk to me so much because you werealways so busy. And now it's like you want me to be your best friend or something. It's notfair.
Albert: Fair? You want to talk about fair? Two Academy Award nominations, look at me. Ican't get arrested.
There are many affecting scenes in the film, both comedic and dramatic. A highlight is thesequence in which Albert attempts to shoot Atlanta, a musical version of Gone Withthe Wind, a self-financed vanity project for Blake, destined to flop in the grand style ofHeaven's Gate in part because of Albert's Stanley Kubrick-level obsessiveness. Beforeshooting his version of the famous scene in which the camera cranes up from Scarlett O'Hara toreveal hundreds of dead and wounded soldiers lying in rows, Albert laments they don't haveenough flies. He then fixates on the dress color of an extra somewhere deep in the background as his assistant warns him that the sun's about to go down. Finally, a coke-snorting Blake emerges from her trailer in full diva mode, ready to sing the lyrics she herself wrote: "This… civil war… ain't gonna get... me down... I'm moving my act... To a brand new town!"
But she yells "cut!" before the scene ends, putting an end to the day's shooting and pushing the already over-budget film further into the red. "Collect the flies!" yells the A.D.
That's a great take on how a bad idea is made worse on-screen. (See Bogdanovich's At Long Last Love forthe real-life parallel.) But the true impact of Irreconcilable Differences lies not in its close-to-the-bone take down of Hollywood excess, but in the finely observed psychological moments: Lucy compulsively giving notes to Blake on her performance while Albert languorously lights theyoung beauty's cigarette, tipping off his wife to the affair with just that one gesture. Or Lucybeckoning her staff -- a pair of standard Hollywood flunkies -- to giddily inform them that herbook has gone to number one, then insisting on telling the housekeeping staff as well. When thecook seems puzzled, just the slightest hint of loneliness and shame flashes across Long'sface; she's on top of the world, but has no one to share it with.
The film winds to a close with Albert and Lucy, on either side of their daughter, literallypulling her arms in opposite directions during one of their vicious fights. The flashback ends andwe're back in the courtroom, where Casey takes the stand to sum up her view of what we havejust seen:
"I think if you have a child, you should treat that child like a human being and not like a pet. Not like you treat your dog or something. You know, when you have a dog sometimes you forget he's there, and then when you get lonely suddenly you remember him, and you remember how cute he is and stuff, and you kiss him a lot, but then the next day when you're busy again you don't notice him."
Irreconcilable Differences is an insider's view of the perils of Hollywood success andthe neediness that drives certain types of the industry's personalities. But what makes the filmmore than just a knowing castigation is the real element of tragedy, not only in the emotionalabuse of a child, but in the disintegration of a deeply sympathetic romantic partnership. Over theyears, I have come to interpret the downfall of Albert and Lucy's relationship differently. Thecorrupting influence of Hollywood -- that's there. But one wonders if the seeds of failurepredated the characters' success, existing from the start in Albert's total immersion in movies. "Isee in you exactly what Jimmy Stewart saw in Jean Arthur," he tells Lucy when they are fallingin love, one of several instances in which he cites a film to explain his psychological state. Forsomeone whose main frame of reference is pictures, perhaps it's only a matter of time before real life wilts under the weight of cinema-driven projections.
After all, those wildest-dreams-come-true can instill a deep vanity. The flip side, however, isthe self-loathing that emerges as they start to crumble, and an inability to nurture anything butyour own success. "Do you love me a lot?" Lucy stops reveling over her invitation to appear onThe Tonight Show to ask her daughter. In Hollywood, the film suggests, maybe that's the only real question on anyone's mind.