Random Play: “Irreconcilable Differences”

Written by Film, Random Play

Robin Monica Alexander delves into the psychology of guilty pleasures, and recalls her childhood fascination over the movie “Irreconcilable Differences.”

What exactly is a “guilty pleasure”? I know it’s supposed to be a movie, TV show, or band that one really enjoys in spite of its dubious value. For whatever reason, even if the thing itself is lame, poorly conceived, or utterly wretched, there’s something about it that pleases or satisfies us, even as it’s eating away at our souls. I have a few such pleasures — the Meg Ryan alcoholism weepie When a Man Loves a Woman (1994), for example, which has been shown approximately 10,000 times on basic cable — but for the most part, I don’t feel guilty about the movies I love, even when no one else seems to appreciate them or even remember that they exist. Case in point: the 1984 Hollywood divorce classic Irreconcilable Differences. Yes, I called it a classic, and here’s why:

idlobby1. Drew Barrymore. Just a year and a half after becoming the breakout star of E.T. (um, Henry Thomas, anyone?), nine-year-old Drew was in demand. In her other film that came out in ’84, Firestarter, she plays a creepy Carrie White Jr. who’s on the run from evil government agents. Irreconcilable Differences finds her playing a role that was, no doubt, all too familiar to her: a child whose life is ruined by her self-absorbed showbiz parents. A scene in which her character, left unattended at a New Year’s Eve party, chugs a glass of champagne and enjoys it just a tad too much is uncomfortably — and deliciously — prescient. Indeed, this movie may have actually saved Barrymore’s life: it taught her the definition of “emancipated minor,” which she herself became at age 15.

2. Shelley Long. Don’t scoff: just because she never really took off in movies doesn’t mean she wasn’t (isn’t!) a very, very funny woman. Sure, the Rebecca Howe years on Cheers were pretty good, but Long’s Diane Chambers is the original and still the best. She won and/or was nominated for a shitload of awards for her portrayal of the pretentious, neurotic barmaid; in fact, she was also nominated for a Golden Globe for her role in Irreconcilable Differences (as was Drew), playing a naïve kindergarten teacher-turned-screenwriter-turned-bitter divorcée. However, what sticks with me about Long’s work in this film all these years later isn’t her comedic timing, but her vulnerability. The scene in which she sees her reflection — an out-of-shape Woman Scorned in a grey sweatsuit, loading up on junk food at the all-night supermarket — and realizes, “Crap, I’m pathetic” … well, let’s just say it’s the first of many moments in the movie that make me well up.

3. Ryan O’Neal. What a long, strange career it’s been for Ryan. From TV soap Peyton Place to big-screen melodrama Love Story to Kubrick masterpiece Barry Lyndon, it seemed the sky was the limit for this dude. He could even do comedy, as he proved in two films costarring ’70s “it” girl Barbra Streisand. In Irreconcilable Differences, he manages to be both funny and touching, making us believe he’s essentially a decent guy who nevertheless screws up royally with his wife and kid. This proves just how good an actor he really is, as the last few decades of his real life, fraught with family conflict, addiction drama, and legal troubles, make it plain that he is actually a major sleazeball. I didn’t know any of this when I first saw the movie, but now that I do, the fact that O’Neal can make me lose it simply by asking Shelley Long what she plans to order at McDonald’s seems even more impressive. (I have a long history of being moved to tears by tales of domestic trauma: I vividly remember crying my head off during a “very special” episode of Silver Spoons.)

4. Sharon Stone. Before crossing and uncrossing her legs in Basic Instinct or getting her Oscar nom for Casino … even before getting shot in the head in Total Recall, Sharon showed up in Irreconcilable Differences as the dimbulb waitress with hairy armpits who becomes Ryan O’Neal’s cinematic “muse.” Naturally, he dumps faithful wife Long, whose talent as a screenwriter has made his entire filmmaking career possible, and takes up with “Blake,” who wants nothing more than to star in a remake of Gone With the Wind. When he can’t get the rights, O’Neal comes up with the idea of making an original movie musical called Atlanta, in which his mistress is to star. This leads to what should definitely make the list of Top Ten Funniest Movie Moments That Make Fun of Movies, in which the talentless ingénue can’t even finish one verse of her big number (“This … Civil War … ain’t gonna get … me down …”) before petulantly calling “Cut!” Whatever crimes she may have committed against cinema, feminism, or good taste, Stone has my eternal respect for this game comedic performance.

I’m not sure why this particular film imprinted itself so forcefully on my psyche. It was one of six movies I watched back to back-to-back at a middle school “slumber” party at which no one slumbered (other flicks in the lineup included WarGames, Revenge of the Nerds and Breakin’), so it would have been easy enough to forget about it afterward. But every few years, I would get the ID itch, rush out to the local video store to pick it up, and force a hapless friend or whomever I was dating at the moment to watch it with me. After Netflix took over the universe, causing said video stores to collapse, I had to find an alternative source for my fix; I was reduced to buying a shitty VHS copy on Half.com. Fortunately, the film was finally released on DVD earlier this year, so I can continue my tradition, and share with my current boyfriend the joy and the tears that this lost gem can inspire. A comedy about bad parenting, a critique of Hollywood sexism, a tearjerker about a broken family … all of the pleasure, none of the guilt.

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