Divorce Movies: How unhappily-ever-after makes for great viewing
Iron Man 3 opens this weekend with plenty of giant explosions to delight audiences and usher in the unofficial start of the Summer Movie. But in other multiplexes there’s another film down the hall, What Maisie Knew, that tells a very different but every bit as destructive story.
Henry James wrote the story this film — directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel — is based upon in 1897. That his tale of a divorced, selfish pair of parents who use their young daughter spitefully in order to hurt the other still feels realistic and resonates over a century later is either really sad or maybe darkly comforting depending on how you want to look at it.
In this new retelling set in modern day New York (where “Maisie” is very much a believable little girl’s name), Julianne Moore plays a charismatic, troubled, moody rocker and Steve Coogan is a charming but constantly traveling father. Through a series of events each parent takes a new spouse — Alexander Skarsgård and Joanna Vanderham, respectively. Onata Aprile plays poor Maisie, a sweet and watchful child who is an unwitting witness to her parent’s bad behavior. (Here is Chris Nashawaty’s review of the film.)
It got me thinking about a genre of film that I’ll just call the Divorce Movie. A marriage unraveling is a terrible thing — even more so when kids are involved — but on the upside, it’s given us some very very very good movies. Here are my personal three favorites.
3. The War of the Roses: Danny DeVito directed this 1989 dark comedy starring Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner (a far cry from their Romancing the Stone days) as Barbara and Oliver Rose, a couple that “met great” but didn’t stay that way. As their marriage falls apart, things get increasingly dark and no one, not even the family pets, are safe (not the pâté!) .
2. Kramer vs. Kramer: You have to ready yourself emotionally before watching this one, but it’s always worth it. Dustin Hoffman plays Ted, a workaholic who is blindsided when his wife Joanna (Meryl Streep) leaves him and their young son, Billy. When she returns, a bitter custody battle takes place and this 1979 film really foresaw a changing attitude about parental guardianship. The script, by writer/director Robert Benton, is sparse and terrific and everyone in it is wonderful. This film earned Meryl Streep her first Oscar — and it won four others at the 52nd Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Actor for Hoffman, and a double Best Director and Best Screenplay for Benton.
1. The Squid and the Whale: Noah Baumbach’s 2005 film, my very favorite Divorce Movie, is one that has sent many of my peers — children of the 1980s — running straight to the therapist’s couch. Set in 1986 Park Slope, Brooklyn, Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney are writers (one on the way up, the other on the way down) who separate after unbearable tension and infidelity. Their two sons, Frank (Owen Kline, son of Kevin) and Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) are left to shuttle back and forth in a mind-blowing custody agreement that has them at one house, “Tuesday, Wednesday, and every other Thursday.” (This would seem ludicrous except that I remember friends who had such arrangements.) Each kid starts to act out in his own way and while this movie has many very funny lines, it’s also a heartbreaker. (In a recent New Yorker profile, Baumbach recalls showing the movie to his mother and “began sobbing and had to leave the screening room.”)
So, is there a Divorce Movie that speaks to you? Any big fans of Bye Bye Love or The Story of Us who want to weigh in here? Take it to the comments!