Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin’ flatscreen.
Norman Lear was responsible for a lot of edgy television in his day. Lear’s shows were ostensibly comedies, but often had a much harder edge to them especially for the time. So it’s not much of a surprise when a Lear-written screenplay turns out to be edgy, too. Divorce American Style is a comedy, but not the sort of comedy that causes a lot of laughing. This film is like trying something to eat that you don’t quite like by keep trying to see if you’ve acquired the taste. Lear had a way of getting an audience to smile, but smile uncomfortably.
Richard (Dick Van Dyke) and Barbara Harmon (Debbie Reynolds) have been married for nearly a dozen and a half years and the spark has left the marriage. Now all they seem to do is fight. They’re both capable of maintaining a good front when they have guests, but on their own, they bicker constantly and tear each other down. Even an evening designed to bring the two of them closer ends up in an argument. Both get advice from friends to empty the joint accounts and safety deposit box and they discover each other in the act. Before you can say “Doodley-doodle-doop,” we’re in divorce court.
Divorce American Style takes place in the 1960s, which means that Richard gets a severe and complete dunking in the divorce settlement. Barbara gets virtually all of the assets and he gets virtually all of the bills. But, at least for now it’s better that being married.
While the divorce is going through, Richard encounters Nelson Downes (Jason Robards), who has been divorced from his wife for years. Nelson was also hammered in his divorce settlement, and despite having a good job, he lives like a pauper. Nelson’s entire reason for his existence is to find someone to marry Nancy (Jean Simmons), his ex-wife. Once she is married off, the alimony payments will stop and he can get on with his own life and marry Eunice (Eileen Brennan), his current girlfriend. But, of course, Richard is broke, too, and he can’t maintain Nancy in her lifestyle with his alimony payments.
And so Nelson and Nancy hatch a little plot. They figure that if they can get Barbara married off, it will free up Richard, who Nancy would like to be with. With Richard free and marrying Nancy, Nelson will also be free. They decide to fix up Barbara with a local car dealer named Al Yearling (Van Johnson), who has never been married. All had some mommy issues (which is why he never clicked with Nancy), but now his mother has died, which makes him prime marriage material.
There are a couple of truly beautiful set pieces in Divorce American Style. The first comes near the start of the film after Richard’s and Barbara’s guests have left their dinner party. The two argue and eventually stop fighting and prepare for bed. What follows is the world’s angriest dance. The two slam cabinets and closet doors, going back and forth opening their own sides of the close while closing the other’s. It builds and builds and until the end, the two never get in the way of each other. I can’t imagine how carefully choreographed this scene must have been, but it couldn’t have been easy.
A second noteworthy scene occurs when Barbara is out with a man named Farley (Tom Bosley). He’s there to pick up children from his second marriage. It seems everyone in the scene has more children by other marriages and everyone has come to the same place to drop off and pick up kids at the same time. The scene starts easily and builds slowly until it becomes impossible to tell who is who every with a scorecard.
The most significant issue with the film is that it doesn’t get to the ending it wants to give us honestly. Sure, it’s funny, and the ending is cute, but we get to it in a way that doesn’t fit with the rest of the movie. It feels dishonest, and because of that, the rest of the movie suffers. If there’s an ending that we want to have, we should get there without sacrificing a great deal of what the film has already built up by this point. It feels like a cheat.
Divorce American Style has its moments and it does a nice job of adding comedy to the dramatic moments. But this is not the film that it should be. With a screenplay this good, we should have an ending to match. Sorry, but that’s a significant flaw in the plotting, and that’s a damn shame.
Why to watch Divorce American Style: Normal Lear pushed a lot of envelopes.
Why not to watch: It doesn’t earn the ending it gives us.