Irreconcilable Differences

February 12, 2020

irreconcilable diffIrreconcilable 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.


Firestarter

December 12, 2019

firestarterOverheard while walking out of the theater after Firestarter: “Let that be a lesson to you: never volunteer for scientific experiments.” Words of wisdom. But if people, real or fictional, ever heeded  that lesson, we’d be robbed of a lot of science fiction/horror stories.

In Firestarter, the latest film adaptation of a Stephen King tale, a scientific experiment with hallucinogenic drugs alters the minds of David Keith and Heather Locklear, who develop certain telekinetic powers. Their eventual offspring (Drew Barrymore) is even more gifted: She can start fires just by concentrating.

This makes the little girl a target of interest for the fiendish government agency (called The Shop) that started the whole experiment in the first place. One doctor (Freddie Jones) wants to expunge the kid’s talent before she passes through adolescence and develops nuclear capabilities. Naturally, he’s not long for the world.

The Shop would rather exploit her abilities. The head honcho (Martin Sheen) sends his most fearsome hit man, a psycho named Rainbird (George C. Scott), out to bring back the girl and her father (mother having been killed in a flashback).

Some of this gets a bit murky. We don’t really know what kind of powers Keith has, for instance, or why, if he can control people, he doesn’t just manipulate an effective solution. And, when Barrymore is eventually imprisoned, it should occur to her that she could burn her way out. Evidently it doesn’t.

Plot holes such as these don’t stop the movie from being a fairly good, professional job. Director Mark L. Lester doesn’t have a very clean visual style, but at least he doesn’t let the film become a guts ‘n gore epic. And the star-heavy cast, presumably bankrolled by the inexhaustible executive producer Dino De Lau rentiis, makes it watchable.

Oscar-winners Art Carney and Louise Fletcher have the kind of supporting roles that could have been played by almost any actors. Scott, however, makes the most of Rainbird, who insinuates himself into a friendship with the child, then reveals his despicability in the climactic scene. As he stalks Barrymore through a stable, toting a pistol and wearing an eye patch, he looks like a deranged version of John Wayne’s Rooster Cogburn – truly a child’s dream turned into a nightmare.

Someone had the canny idea to cast cherubic Drew Barrymore – the little sister from E.T. – as the tiny heroine. Her naturally likable presence plays well against the reality of her terrifying power. Every few minutes, she gets to burn something to the ground, which she does with deadpan intensity.

All through the film, we’ve been made aware that all the girl wants to do is live a normal life. At the end, after The Shop gets its just reward, our heroine doesn’t quite fade into the general populace. Instead, she finds herself at the front door of the New York Times, ready to reveal all. Good grief. Out of the frying pan . . . .

First published in the Herald, May 1984

I never saw it again, and don’t have much recollection of it. You’d think the George C. Scott stuff would be memorable, but I honestly had no memory that he was in this movie until just now. To say nothing of Heather Locklear, of whom we will say nothing.