Meet Richard and Barbara Harmon. A typical American couple, together for 17 years. But lately things have gotten too predictable and stale. The once loving couple spends their evenings arguing, their marriage quickly unravelling. They visit a marriage counselor to no avail, and when Richard pays a drunken visit to a prostitute (Lee Grant), they split up. But the Harmons find their newly-single lifestyle isn’t going to be easy. Richard meets Jason Robards (All the President’s Men, Julia) who plays matchmaker for his ex-wife Jean Simmons (Elmer Gantry, Spartacus), figuring he won’t have to pay alimony if she’s re-married to Richard. Barbara falls for Big Al (Van Johnson) a car dealer with a mother fixation. but when Barbara and Richard are reunited at a nightclub one evening, they come to the realization that even though they didn’t have a perfect marriage, it was a lot better than their divorce.
I had wanted to see this movie for years – so long, in fact, that I don’t even remember what the original appeal was. Honestly. Was it because I had seen ‘Divorce – Italian Style’? Was it because I had heard good things about it? Was it because of the premise, which is a dramedy about (and commentary on) the state of modern married life, circa the mid-‘60s?
Who knows? But when I was able to get my grubby little hands on it once and for all, it was an offer that I found hard to resist. And I’m glad that I gave in.
I must admit that I had reservations about the director, Bud Yorkin, as he made very little that catches my eye (or interest) and is also notorious for making one of the worst “Pink Panther” movies ever (featuring Alan Arkin as Inspector Clouseau – instead of Peter Sellers, who was THE Inspector Clouseau until Steve Martin totally crapped all over the series :S). But it worked out this time. Sure there are some editing/pacing issues along the way but, overall, it was nothing too uncommon for the era – and Yorkin mostly let the actors just do their thing.
There are times when he had to coordinate them, however, and the result were surprisingly good. It worked out especially well in the initial sequence when our two protagonists prepare to go to bed; reminiscent of the only scene that actually works in “Inspector Clouseau”, the husband and wife move around each other, opening and closing doors, drawers, cupboards, ….etc., like a well-choreographed dance. It’s actually rather remarkable and it must have been both fun and challenging to put together and perform.
In that respect, Dick Van Dyke and Debbie Reynolds certainly impress – I never would have expected this kind of performance from either of them (though, in all fairness, I know little of their acting abilities; the only other film I’ve seen Reynolds in is in Albert Brooks’ über-underrated ‘Mother’). Overall, the performances are solid, if a little average. But they are fine for the film, even though the material could have been elevated with a duo like Doris Day and Rock Hudson.
All in all, I was very pleased with ‘Divorce American Style’; it’s heavy-handed at times, but the comedy and the drama stand on their own equally well all the while merging into a solid piece.