Director James Ivory, along with his partner and frequent collaborator, Ismail Merchant, and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala are sometimes disdained by the young and trendy for their more traditional, literary movie-making; it’s the Masterpiece Theatre syndrome. Were they never to make another film, though, they would still have to be included in the roster of the greats — consider a filmography that includes Shakespeare-Wallah (1965),Heat And Dust (1982), A Room With A View (1986), Howard’s End (1992), and The Remains Of The Day (1993).
Unfortunately, their current entry, Le Divorce, won’t be added to the list of their many successful efforts. Adapted from the novel by Diane Johnson, Le Divorce centers on a subject that has marked the work of this team in the past–the clash of people from different cultures whose destinies converge. Here it is Isabel Walker (Kate Hudson), a young American who travels to Paris to be with her pregnant older sister, Roxy (Naomi Watts). Roxy is married to Charles-Henri (Melvil Poupad), who comes, with trust funds, from an haute bourgeois French family headed by his matriarchal mother (Leslie Caron).
Charles-Henri wants a divorce from Roxy; he’s in love with another woman. The other woman’s husband (Mathew Modine) is outraged and distraught; he seeks an alliance with Roxy. When Roxy’s baby arrives, the rest of her family visit from Santa Barbara. Her father, Chester (Sam Waterston), a college professor, mother (Stockard Channing), and brother provide a contrast with the more formal French characters.
These events are all observed by Isabel as she pops into simultaneous affairs with a spiked-hair young man and an older, suave, married diplomat (Thierry Lhermitte) who is Charles-Henri’s uncle. Add in a literary lioness (Glen Close) and a savvy curator (Bebe Neuwirth), not to speak of other members of the French family, stir well, and what you get is an overpopulated comedy of manners that is heavily plot-dependent and never gives any one character (including Isabel) sufficient depth to be interesting. Presumably Isabel is learning about the cultural differences (around social mores, sexual protocols, family conventions, even cubed vs. granulated sugar), but her character is so paley drawn in the first place that any change growing out of her experience seems inconsequential.
Tone is a problem for the film as well. It rarely elicits real laughter, though it surely aims for humor. There is occasional wit and some clever dialogue, generally aimed at those intercultural clashes, but what should stay light gets pulled down by the heavy emotions of the divorce and the melodramatic events of the plot which relies on a far-fetched deus ex machina to pull its many strands together.
The star-studded cast make the best of their underwritten characters, but they can’t be expected to pull rabbits out of berets; personality can’t compensate for the missing characterizations. There’s no chemistry at all between Isabel and her two beaus, making their casual affairs all the more charmless. (And, as usual, brilliant Bebe Neuwirth is utterly wasted in a small, dull role. Can’t anyone in Hollywood figure out how to use this talent?)
Not sparkling enough for comedy, not compelling enough for drama, Le Divorce gets mired down trying to be both. It’s a bland pudding trying to be a chocolate souffle.