While watching the Americans in Paris dramedy "Le Divorce," I kept wondering why a jilted wife and various members of her American family repeatedly return to her in-laws' estate for Sunday lunch. After all, her breakup with their son hasn't been particularly pleasant as he's run off with another woman and now wants half of her family's prized and potentially valuable painting.
Then I remembered that I was watching what's become known as a Merchant-Ivory film. Named for producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory, the two have a longstanding partnership in creating mostly period costume dramas - such as "The Remains of the Day" and "Howards End" -- where characters abide by etiquette and manners even when they'd rather not.
Yet, for good or bad, "Le Divorce" isn't set in the past with stuffy sets and proper attire, but rather in present day Paris. While that may be a bit off-putting for fans of the duo's usual period settings, the contemporary quality along with an impressive cast might just be appealing to a larger (and thus more lucrative) audience.
That is, as long as they don't mind the various problems that begin with the aforementioned lunches and continue through varying amounts of melodrama, convenient developments (often right after a bit of dialogue bringing up a related issue) and an overall uneven tone and pacing.
The film's biggest problem - in my humble opinion - concerns the latter in that it doesn't know whether it wants to be a comedy or drama. Although many films have successfully straddled that line - drama with funny moments or vice-versa - this one never really settles down as one, the other, or a satisfying combination thereof.
Methinks it's more drama than comedy, but that then leaves various developments and scenes as awkwardly if not goofily played out (whereas in a comedy they would have fit in and/or been accepted better).
In conjunction with trying to be too many things, the film -- written by Ivory and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala ("Howards End," "A Room With a View") and based on a novel by Diane Johnson - also suffers a bit from trying to cram too many characters and subplots into its nearly two hour runtime.
Although it has a terrific and large ensemble cast, some of the characters and their stories could have been jettisoned with little or no ill effect. Ivory and company might be talented filmmakers, but they've overextended their reach a bit too much here and the strain shows.
That said, there are parts that I think work quite well. I particularly liked the contrast between the American sisters and their differing yet ultimately similar experiences with love and romance in Paris with French men. Other than having to wade through some obvious dialogue, melodramatic moments and convenient plot developments, Kate Hudson ("Alex & Emma," "How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days") and Naomi Watts ("The Ring," "Mulholland Drive") are quite good as the differing siblings.
Thierry Lhermitte ("And Now Ladies and Gentlemen," "The Closet") and Melvil Poupaud ("Normal People are Nothing Special," "A Hell of a Day") are appropriately slimy as the men in their lives, playing uncle and nephew, no less, for a bit of "it runs in the family" satire, while Leslie Caron ("Chocolat," "Lili") hits all of the right notes as their brother/mother who seems to enjoy - in a proper manner, of course - watching the Americans squirm.
Glenn Close ("Air Force One," 'The Big Chill") is good as another American who knows a thing or two about French men (but isn't around enough to impact the plot too much), while Sam Waterston ("The Killing Fields," TV's "Law & Order"), Stockard Channing ("Life or Something Like It," "Where the Heart Is") and Thomas Lennon ("How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days," "A Guy Thing") appear as various members of the sisters' American family who show up in France.
They're hoping to protect the family interests in the painting that draws the attention of art expert characters played by Bebe Neuwirth ("How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days," "Tadpole") and Stephen Fry ("Gosford Park," "Wilde"). The latter is fabulous in his small role and one only wishes he were given more screen time and/or material with which to work.
Matthew Modine ("Any Given Sunday," "Cutthroat Island"), on the other hand, isn't as convincing as a jilted husband who blames Watts' character for his marital woes (her husband has run off with his wife). I wasn't sure if we're supposed to laugh at or be afraid of his character's turbulent behavior (or perhaps both), but his is the weakest link in the overall effort (including an out of place ending).
This is one of those films that I really wanted to like. There are parts of it that I did, but it suffers from too many nagging problems to match what its filmmakers have crafted in the past. Although it's not troublesome enough that you'll automatically want to separate yourself from it, "Le Divorce" isn't good enough to warrant long term suitors. It rates as a 4 out of 10.