Combustible Celluloid
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With: Naomi Watts, Kate Hudson, Glenn Close, Stockard Channing, Leslie Caron, Sam Waterston, Bebe Neuwirth, Matthew Modine, Stephen Fry, Melvil Poupaud, Thierry Lhermitte
Written by: James Ivory, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, based on the novel by Diane Johnson
Directed by: James Ivory
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for mature thematic elements and sexual content
Running Time: 117
Date: 08/08/2003

Le Divorce (2003)

1 Star (out of 4)

Watching Paint Dry

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

James Ivory's new film Le Divorce opens with a charming animated title sequence that brings to mind warm memories of the Paris we know from movies like Trouble in Paradise, An American in Paris and Charade. Sadly, the credits end and the live-action movie quickly becomes one of the year's most turgid efforts. The film immediately segues into exposition as Isabel Walker (Kate Hudson) arrives in Paris and explains to the guy in the passport window who she is, where she's going, who she's meeting, who that person is, and a few other things. Surprisingly, Ivory's regular screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala -- who has penned over 20 movies and has won two Oscars -- wrote this lazy first passage that sets the tone for the rest of the dismal film. Isabel's half-sister Roxy (Naomi Watts) lives in Paris and works as a poet. Her marriage to a painter (Melvil Poupaud) ends just as Isabel arrives; he even takes over Isabel's cab. Unfortunately, Roxy is pregnant and still has to deal with her ex-husband's snooty French family, headed by matriarch Leslie Caron (from, of course, An American in Paris). But there is a bright side. A painting that has been in Isabel and Roxy's family turns out to be a valuable collector's item and they begin putting feelers out as to potential buyers. The only problem is that the ex-husband might want to claim a portion of the painting in the divorce.

Good actors such as Glenn Close, Stockard Channing, Sam Waterston and Thierry Lhermitte (The Closet) turn up, but Ivory handles them with the same glazed nothingness as every other facet of the movie. It's as if he were wandering around the supermarket staring at all the various items -- bananas, eggs, carrots -- without picking anything up or even registering that they're there. It's such a lazy, phoned-in job of work that he lets stupid mistakes go by. Matthew Modine plays an American whose wife is now sleeping with Roxy's ex-husband. In one scene, Modine shows up at a bookstore where Roxy is giving a reading. Ivory cuts to a shot of Isabel sitting in the audience, and just behind her is an extra who looks exactly like the wife. I kept wondering what the heck was going on until I realized it was a mistake.

That's pretty subtle, but Ivory's attention lags during major scenes as well. He doesn't even bother to direct Watts to move or walk like she's pregnant. She strolls around like a slinky supermodel with a pillow stuffed under her shirt. The movie's one interesting subplot, discovering whether the painting is authentic or not, could have been a nifty little detective story. And Stephen Fry spices up the picture, turning up in a couple of brief scenes as a Christie's art dealer. But once again, Ivory shuffles through these scenes as if they were no different from any other subplot. As such, he indirectly insults local author Diane Johnson, who not only wrote the original novel, but also penned the screenplay for Stanley Kubrick's The Shining (1980). It boggles the mind to consider the chasm between the two films. After nearly two hours of soul-deadening drudgery, Jhabvala and Ivory suddenly end everything on a jaunty, happy note, wrapping up the various plot threads with one neat snip. And then they fall back on the one thing even more annoying that that opening expository dialogue: closing narration. Even though no narrator has spoken up for the entire picture, Hudson provides a few closing remarks.

In a way, Ivory's brand of filmmaking is even more insulting than Jerry Bruckheimer's. Both men are coldly calculating businessmen rather than artists, but Bruckheimer aims for baser levels of entertainment -- going for the gut, so to speak. Ivory fools intelligent moviegoers into thinking they've seen something grand and important. But it's really just the same empty product.

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