Irreconcilable Differences is an odd film, and I mean that as a compliment. The ad campaign suggests a screwball comedy. The presence of Ryan O’Neal and Shelley Long – primarily comedic stars – reinforces this.
But when you sit down in front of this movie, you quickly see that we’re not in sitcomland. Irreconcilable Differences is most reminiscent of Terms of Endearment in its efforts to blend comedy with meaningful drama. It doesn’t always work, but it’s an interesting try.
It begins with a little girl (Drew Barrymore) suing her parents (O’Neal and Long) for a divorce, since nobody gets along anymore. The film is then taken up with the way these people got to this point, and is seen in lengthy flashbacks.
It’s the story of a rocky love affair, beginning on a rainy Indiana road where O’Neal, a film teacher bound for Hollywood, is hitchhiking. Long, a flibbertigibbet on her way to marry a domineering sweetheart, gives him a ride. Love at (almost) first sight, of course, and they move to Los Angeles, get married, and have their daughter.
Then O’Neal gets a shot at directing a film. The two of them collaborate on the screenplay, but when the film is a smash, he gets the credit (and the enlarged noggin that goes with it).
For his next film, he discovers a waitress (Sharon Stone) to play the lead – and he falls in love with her. He and Long separate.
His next starring vehicle for his new protegee shall be nothing less than a musical remake of Gone With the Wind. Since no one in Hollywood is foolish enough to back him, he sinks his own money into the project. It becomes the biggest stinker in film history.
Long rebounds from months of depression and extra pounds with a nasty autobiographical book, He Said It Was Going to Be Forever. Her star rises just as quickly as O’Neal’s plummets. In the midst of all this the daughter spends most of her time with the Mexican maid – with whom she truly feels cared for.
There are very funny sequences here, and some genuinely tender moments. The chronicle of the first days the couple know each other is lovingly detailed, and the Gone With the Wind bit is hilarious.
These filmmaking scenes are a somewhat cruel fictionalization of the career of Peter Bogdanovich, a critic turned-director whose life greatly resembles that of Ryan O’Neal’s character (ironic, since O’Neal has done some of his best work, including What’s Up, Doc? and Paper Moon, for Bogdanovich). Bogdanovich also ruined his career (at least for a while) by trying to make a star out of his discovery, Cybill Shepherd.
Charles Shyer and Nancy Meyers (they wrote Private Benjamin) do not do enough things well enough to make the film work all the time. But the fact that they try to do so many things, and do them with sensitivity, is reason enough to be impressed. The ending, accompanied by Frank Sinatra’s “You and Me (We Wanted It All),” is admirably restrained. It’s not exactly a happy ending, but it certainly is an honest one – and I find it very easy to reconcile myself to that.
First published in the Herald, September 1984
Well that’s weird, because where this movie seemed to meanly borrow from Bogdanovich’s life story at the time, in retrospect it seemed to predict the way Nancy Meyers’ career would eventually outpace her husband’s. Maybe Bogdanovich got some satisfaction from that.