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Failure to commit makes for messy 'Le Divorce'

Sept. 5, 2003

By Eric Schaefer, columnist

Combine two of Hollywood's hottest actresses with a producer and director revered for their adaptations of literary works and one should expect a near masterpiece in Le Divorce. Unfortunately, the casting of Kate Hudson (How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days) and Naomi Watts (The Ring, Mulholland Drive) can't save this Merchant/Ivory/Jhabvala (A Room With a View, Howards End, The Remains of the Day) production that tries to juggle so many subplots that it can't commit to any of them sufficiently enough for a satisfactory experience.

Beautiful young American Isabel Walker (Hudson) is visiting older sister and poet Roxanne (Watts) who lives in Paris, is seven months pregnant and whose husband has just walked out on her and her 5-year-old daughter. Roxanne's husband, Charles-Henri (Melvil Poupaud), is having an affair with a wacky Russian woman and wants a divorce in order to marry her.

Though Roxanne has adapted well to French culture and language, she now is devastated and has no one to turn for support. Isabel is of limited help because she quickly becomes the lover to a young artist and mistress to Edgar Cosset (Thierry Lhermitte), a much older man, political leader and uncle to Charles-Henri.

Le Divorce tries to be a romance, comedy and drama, something that is difficult to do but not impossible (think As Good As It Gets). The problem is not that it succeeds at all three aspects and is therefore hard to label. Rather, the movie half-heartedly stumbles in all areas.

The heart of the movie is the love-hate relationship between the American and French cultures. Americans are made fun of for being too uptight about sex; the French are ribbed for being too uptight about money. Both cultures have strengths and faults. That goodwill endures between the two is represented by the altruistic Roxanne and her kindhearted French lawyer Bertram (Jean-Marc Barr).

The movie is adapted from Diane Johnson's best-selling novel and apparently tries to cast every character in the book. Watts garners sympathy as the victim and would be the moral voice had the movie followed through with any of the heavier themes.

Hudson looks the ingenue part, but her Isabel (Johnson's homage to Henry James) is so underdeveloped that she is less naòve than just plain vacuous. Leslie Caron of Gigi fame is strong as Roxanne's completely unsympathetic mother-in-law who has no problem with affairs as long as they are carried out with class. Glenn Close plays jaded American expatriate writer Olivia Pace who mentors Roxanne and has her own history with Edgar.

Sam Waterston (Law and Order) and Stockard Channing (The West Wing) are Roxanne and Isabel's parents who fly in from Santa Barbara with their brother Roger (Thomas Lennon). Matthew Modine, best known as the besieged Pvt. Joker in Full Metal Jacket, gets the most thankless role as the disturbed husband cuckolded by Charles-Henri.

As if that weren't enough characters to work with, another subplot regards a potentially valuable painting belonging to Roxanne's family that may be a La Tour and is being contested by Charles-Henri in their settlement.

In the movie's best sustained drama, Getty Museum expert Bebe Neuwirth (Lilith from Frasier) battles an English auctioneer played by Stephen Fry for rights to the painting.

Le Divorce is subject to high expectations because of the cast and crew behind it. Unfortunately, in trying to cover too much territory the movie squanders much of its resources. Though filmed in France, there are few memorable exterior or interior shots. It is symbolic of the problems with the movie that the suspense regarding the painting has little to do with the heart of the story. If Le Divorce paid as much attention to its characters and main themes as it does to the scenes regarding art history and painting restoration it would have been a very interesting movie. To its credit, the PG-13 movie demonstrates that sexual themes can be presented without being explicit. Grade: C