It's been a decade since the bafflingly popular Merchant-Ivory team has churned out anything I could even remotely recommend to friends and family. Since Remains of the Day, director and co-writer James Ivory, producer Ismail Merchant, and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala have made a couple of really awful pictures (Jefferson in Paris and Surviving Picasso), as well as one that left me completely unaffected (A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries), and one I couldn't even bring myself to watch (The Golden Bowl).
Granted, theirs is an acquired taste --- one needs to be into stuffy adaptations of stuffy novels full of stuffy characters. But with Le Divorce (opens Friday, August 22), which is based on Diane Johnson's 1997 bestseller, M-I ups the stakes by allowing the immensely untalented Kate Hudson to front the proceedings. (If you want a really good laugh, read the interview where she calls Americans "annoying, boisterous creatures." Hello, Kettle? Pot here. You're black.) From the looks of the trailer and the poster, one might get the impression Hudson was sharing top billing with Naomi Watts, but sadly, that is not the case. Le Divorce would have been instantly stronger if the casting were reversed, or if those roles were cast as originally intended (with Natalie Portman and Winona Ryder).
Divorce almost feels as if someone took pieces of a dozen different films and tried to patch them together in an attempt to make an avant-garde art project. There are enough threads to fill two seasons of a typical television drama, but none of them are interesting or fleshed out enough to work here. The focal point of the picture is two families, one American and one French. Watts is Roxeanne, a poet from Santa Barbara who lives in Paris and is married to painter Charles-Henri (Melvil Poupaud). He leaves her for a Russian dancer (Rona Harter). At the same time, younger sister Isabel (Hudson) arrives in town to care for the pregnant Roxeanne.
While in Paris, Isabel embarks on affairs with two different men. One is the bohemian handyman-dog walker (Romain Duris) of another American expatriate poet (Glenn Close channeling the late Colleen Dewhurst); the other is an ultra right-wing politician (Thierry Lhermitte) who happens to be Charles-Henri's uncle. During Roxeanne's divorce proceedings, which make France seem like it's run by the Taliban, Charles-Henri's family, led by matriarch Suzanne (Leslie Caron), tries to get their grubby mitts on a potentially valuable painting that was handed down to Isabel, Roxeanne, and brother Roger (Thomas Lennon) by their parents (Stockard Channing and Sam Waterston). Somewhere in this mix, Bebe Neuwirth and Stephen Frye pop up as art appraisers, and Matthew Modine occasionally appears to act spastic.
So there are a lot of characters, but none of them are sympathetic, let alone the leads. Roxeanne is a professional doormat, and Isabel becomes the f-bunny for someone already trying to screw over her family. I can't remember the last film I saw with so little focus. (Oh, wait --- I remember now. It was Gigli.) Divorce is scattered and disjointed, and at the end it expects the audience to swallow a big mouthful of pseudo-Amélie charm (right around the same time Hudson's character starts to narrate the heretofore narrator-free movie --- the sure sign of an editing room Hail Mary).
Stereotypes and faux sophistication abound, though Divorce does feature one slightly funny line. When Roxeanne finds out France's Draconian divorce laws aren't exactly looking out for her best interests, she shouts, "I can't believe I'm trapped in a novel by Balzac!" Hey, try being trapped in an audience full of people who can't believe they're trapped in a theatre watching someone complain about being trapped in a novel by Balzac.
Carlos Reygadas' feature-film debut should do for Mexican existentialism what Love Liza and Leaving Las Vegas did for good old American gluttony. With very little dialogue, inexperienced actors, a lead character with no name, a title that is never quite explained and a very weird scene involving sex and a horse, Japón (screens Friday, August 22, at the Dryden) channels Werner Herzog, Abbas Kiarostami, and Alejandro Jodorowsky. You'll either be enraptured (it won a Golden Camera Special Mention --- whatever that is --- at Cannes) or fast asleep (like me).
Japón is about a depressed, gimpy painter (Alejandro Ferretis) from Mexico City who decides to hike out into the dusty wilderness and kill himself. Along the way, he meets, moves in with and eventually nails a much older mountain woman (Magdalena Flores) whose home is about to be destroyed because she never paid for the bricks four decades ago when the place was built. The notes I took during the film remind me that one of the two looks like David Brenner, though I can't remember which one I meant. Their sex scene is as disturbing as it is unnecessary, as are the copious shots of horrible things happening to animals (it's all real, too).
Japón's finale is a seven-minute shot that might just dazzle anyone who is still awake to see it. I don't think Japón is a bad film, since many people loved it for some reason. But it's definitely not for everyone. And when I say "everyone," I mean people whose brains are attached to their spinal cords.
Interested in raw, unsanitized movie ramblings from Jon? Visit his site, Planet Sick-Boy (www.sick-boy.com), or listen to him on WBER's Friday Morning Show.