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.


Chances Are

December 18, 2019

chancesareA real old-fashioned movie-movie, Chances Are is a welcome addition to the dismal Hollywood scene. It’s not a great film, but it is refreshing to see a traditional comedy format being smartly reworked by people who seem to care about the material.

A prologue, set in Washington, in 1963, shows the marriage of a young couple, their gushy happiness, and then the early death of the husband. But the husband doesn’t take his death lying down; in heaven (the customary version, with dry ice and jazz music) he demands that his spirit be reincarnated as soon as possible, so he can find his wife again. He’s promptly deposited into a newborn baby.

Jump ahead to the present day. The widow, Corrine (Cybill Shepherd), has been constant; never been with another man, despite the faithful and gentlemanly love of her best friend, Philip (Ryan O’Neal), who quite naturally pines for her.

Meanwhile, that same baby boy into whose mortal coil the dead husband’s spirit has shuffled, is now a young man: Alex (Robert Downey Jr.), a bright-eyed journalism student, who is brought to Corrine’s doorstep through a series of clever coincidences.

Alex doesn’t remember his past life – not yet – but he does know there’s something awfully familiar about Corrine’s house. Why, for instance, is he so sure the corn-holders are in the second drawer on the left?

One of the movie’s funniest sequences has Alex suddenly remembering who he was, and becoming very nervous about his attraction to this older woman, to say nothing of his ambivalent feelings about her – and his – college-age daughter (Mary Stuart Masterson).

Obviously, there are elements of such reincarnation classics as Here Comes Mr. Jordan, Heaven can Wait, and Made in Heaven. Director Emile Ardolino, in his first outing since the megahit Dirty Dancing, attempts to conjure some of the magical qualities of those films, and largely succeeds.

And this movie has romance to burn: tuxedos and evening gowns, a waltz to the sounds of a carousel, the Johnny Mathis theme song. The presence of Shepherd and O’Neal evokes a certain bygone style of Hollywood glamour, while the nimble performance of Robert Downey Jr., in his best role since The PickUp Artist, keeps the film lively. For the first time, Downey seems like a real leading man, charming and disciplined; his reactions as he twirls an enormous society matron around the dance floor at a fund-raising ball are evidence of some impeccable comic instincts.

The screenplay is by the sister team of Randy and Perry Howze, who also wrote Mystic Pizza. Aside from a disposable subplot about a corrupt judge it’s a nice piece of work; everything that gets set up in the deliberate, unhurried prologue has a payoff somewhere down the line. That sort of care brings the most satisfying results.

First published in the Herald, March 1989

It seems to have slipped off the radar, and I don’t think it was a big hit at the time. If I’m remembering right, I interviewed Ardolino for this film, and he clearly had a feel for movies, especially classic comedies. He died in 1993 from AIDS complications. Downey is terrific in this film, but so is Ryan O’Neal, displaying the gentler side of his screen persona. So the Howze sisters wrote three movies, and this is their final IMDb credit; what happened to them?