Cupid shoots for l’amour in Paris, but strikes l’ennui

On paper, “Le Divorce” seems like the perfect movie: It has an ensemble cast ranging from Kate Hudson to Glenn Close. The script is based on a yuppie-beloved best-seller. The film is a Merchant Ivory production, putting it in the company of “The Remains of the Day” and “A Room with a View.”

On celluloid, however, it’s a different story. Uneven at best and tedious at worst, “Le Divorce” will find its place in cinematic history alongside “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” another big-name book adaptation that flopped despite awe-inspiring credentials. This is especially disappointing because the concept – the differences between French and American approaches to love and betrayal – is romantic comedy gold.

Unlike other Merchant Ivory productions, “Le Divorce” is set in the present day, chronicling the misadventures of two families in the midst of a divorce quarrel in France. Naomi Watts plays Roxy de Persand, an American expatriot living in Paris who is left by her French husband, Antoine (Samuel Labarthe), the very day her sister Isabel (Kate Hudson) arrives for an extended visit.

During her stay, Isabel subsequently has an affair with Edgar, Antoine’s successful, charming, married and much older cousin. While Isabel learns the ups and downs of l’amour, Roxy struggles to fight off both the disgruntled husband of Antoine’s mistress and her former in-laws, who want to take ownership of an expensive family heirloom.

But the plot is entirely inconsequential. It is merely a contrivance employed by Diane Johnson, who penned the novel, and James Ivory, who directed the film, to showcase the cultural divide between Americans and Frenchmen. To be sure, the plot is not particularly original, but it still does not deserve such cursory neglect. The movie jumps from one character to another, never sticking to a central storyline. This lack of focus, compounded by stilted dialogue and the even more stilted commentaries on French culture, turn the film into an amalgam of episodes with no true coherency beyond the characters’ relationships. The more strained the personal relationships become, the more the vignettes lose focus.

And as the story progresses, we are introduced to an increasing slew of secondary characters, throwing the film into a downward spiral. It eventually devolves into a tiring exercise, the “oh, it’s THAT guy!” game, which any viewer of recent Woody Allen movies will assure you is only fun up to a point. Matthew Modine plays the angry husband who surfaces now and then to urge Roxy to take action against Antoine. Bebe Neuwirth has a short stint as a museum curator, Stephen Fry has five lines as a Christie’s Art House representative and Sam Waterston and Stockard Channing complete the line-up as Isabel and Roxy’s parents. But the most rewarding, esoteric find in this celebrity tracking game is that of Thomas Lennon, who plays Roxy’s greedy brother. Some of you might know him as Lieutenant Jim Dangle from Comedy Central’s “Reno 911!”

It’s hard for me to bring myself to criticize such quick performances, as truly entertaining actors end up underused, further driving home the point that they are in the film only to lend the cachet of their names and not their talents. Hudson and Watts, who have the most screen time of anyone, deliver decent yet unimpressive performances. One can hardly hold it against them, as the script undoubtedly squashed any aspirations they might have had to give their characters depth. Roxy’s character development is practically non-existent until the final fourth of the film, and Isabel’s growth is annoyingly heavy-handed and clichéd. Both of their stories end predictably.

However, for the movie to come to its inevitable, feel-good end, a great deal of patience is necessary. To say that the movie is overly long is an understatement; I can’t think of any reason a romantic comedy should go past 90 minutes, and this one clocks in at almost two hours. Even P.T. Anderson, whose movies often go near the three-hour mark, made “Punch-Drunk Love” in 90 minutes.

As the plot meanders and the cast expands, the audience is left alienated, torn between a desire to see at least one subplot adequately developed and a compulsive wristwatch-checking in hopes that the end is near.

Not even a great cast can salvage the film’s unfocused, meandering plot. Had the movie been edited cleanly and the vignettes organized coherently, the film would at least prove enjoyable, if nothing else. As it stands now, “Le Divorce” is an overproduced, underwritten film that (Naomi Watts being really, really hot notwithstanding), is destined to be forgotten.

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