Valentine’s Day is the time to celebrate love in all its magnificent splendor. However, since we’re a bunch of cynics around here, let’s do the opposite of that. This week’s Roundtable is dedicated to movies about divorce, break-ups, and other stories where love simply does not win in the end.
There’s only one correct answer for this week’s topic and it’s 1989’s ‘The War of the Roses‘, the dark comedy directed by Danny DeVito and starring Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner in their third – and best – on-screen pairing. Oliver and Barbara Rose “meet cute” (as Roger Ebert used to put it), marry, and seem to have the perfect life… until Barbara just can’t take it anymore. As she puts it to Oliver in the film, “When I watch you eat, when I see you sleep, I just want to smash your face in.”
The Roses file for divorce, but instead of parting amicably, Oliver decides that they’ll literally divide their house up. Both of them have to stay in marked and defined areas. Big mistake. In addition to directing, DeVito also plays Oliver’s attorney, and he puts it best when he says, “There’s no winning here, only degrees of losing.” If you haven’t seen this American classic about love gone wrong, check it out. It’s available on Blu-ray as part of Fox’s Filmmaker Signature Series.
Woody Allen has made a lot of films about love, and while they seldom end happily for those involved, ‘Crimes and Misdemeanors‘ is an extreme example of two of the worst possible romantic outcomes. One affair (a literal affair) that burns almost white hot, ends with the man (Martin Landau) having his lover (Angelica Huston) murdered. The other ends with a nebbishy documentary filmmaker (Allen) seeing the woman of his dreams end up in the arms of his mortal enemy (Alan Alda), a producer of slick television garbage. The evil and conniving end up happy. The tortured and driven end up alone. Or dead. Isn’t that always the way?
Still poignant nearly 40 years later, ‘Kramer vs. Kramer‘ is not only a tale of love gone wrong, but adds the huge complication of a child custody battle. Superbly cast, the players are all ultimately sympathetic, but at the same time reinforce the idea that a rift between married parents can only bring multiple losers. As a drama, the events are reasonable but also uncomfortable. Divorce is such a normal part of life, most attempts to bring it to theaters would make for a lot of empty seats.
Adam Tyner (DVDTalk)
I keep thinking back to that moment in ‘(500) Days of Summer‘ when Tom realizes that he’s done it. The co-worker he’d been fawning over – Summer, played by the appropriate dreamy Zooey Deschanel – is in his bedroom and revealing her most closely guarded secrets. His mind is reeling at the certainty that she’s telling him things that perhaps no one else has ever heard, silently celebrating to the point that he’s not paying the least bit of attention to her. Summer feels something so rare and unique that she’s tearing down her barriers to let someone in, and Tom is selfishly giving himself a high five.
As the disclaimer at the start of the film notes, this is a story of boy meets girl, but it’s not a love story. It couldn’t be. To Tom, Summer isn’t a person; she’s an ideal. She’s a concept. She’s a thing to attain. She’s a fantasy totem whose continued presence is validation to Tom that he’s the man he wants to be. He’s caught completely off-guard when Summer calls the whole thing off. After all, his memories of them together are uniformly idyllic and blissful. That’s because Tom saw what he wanted to see and willfully ignored the rest. He’s enthralled with the idea of being in love, but woefully unable to put anyone else’s feelings, thoughts or opinions above his own. Tom isn’t actually in a place in his life where he deserves it. That’s not to say that Summer bears no responsibility in the collapse of the relationship, but Tom is the wrecking ball that sent it crumbling into ruin.
‘(500) Days of Summer’ doesn’t end with the two of them overcoming their differences and walking hand-in-hand towards a sunny future. Tom and Summer shouldn’t be together, and any happy ending for them as a couple would be unearned. Instead, the movie ends with Tom learning from his mistakes and making a sincere effort to better himself – not just to be a better boyfriend but to be a better person, full stop. The final question, when another lovely lady catches his eye, is if Tom is truly in a place for a substantial relationship or if there’s some chance of history repeating itself. It’s an ending that’s hopeful but still somewhat uncertain, just as it should be.
Of the many films I’ve seen at the Sundance Film Festival, one of my very favorites is ‘(500) Days of Summer‘. The Press & Industry screening filled up before I could get a seat, so I spent the remainder of the week attempting to get into a public screening of the highly buzzed romantic comedy. It wasn’t until the final showing of the festival that I finally got in, and it was totally worth all the effort and time that I put into it. I’m not typically a fan of romantic comedies, but those that are told from the perspective of the heartbroken or overly-ambitious male seem to satisfy me a lot more than those from the female perspective. As I’d hoped, ‘(500)’ delivered the goods and ended up being my favorite romance-centric movie. Although Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Summer (Zooey Deschanel) don’t end up together in the end, it’s fitting. Had they wound up with a happily ever after, then it wouldn’t be half the film it is.
As painful as it can be to watch a couple break apart, the exquisite Merchant-Ivory period piece ‘The Remains of the Day‘ delivers even more heartbreak with the story of a love that never comes together in the first place. Just two years after playing the flamboyant serial killer Hannibal Lecter, Anthony Hopkins is remarkably restrained as the rigid, uptight English butler Mr. Stevens, a man so emotionally repressed that he simply cannot bring himself to admit his feelings to the woman he secretly pines for (Emma Thompson) despite spending decades working by her side. Their story aches with missed opportunities and unrequited love.
Honestly, I’ve never warmed to any of the other films by James Ivory and Ismail Merchant, most of which feel like handsomely-mounted literary illustrations burdened by rigid formalism and coldly aloof storytelling. ‘The Remains of the Day’ achieves what their other movies don’t for me – an engrossing and emotionally involving story that takes on a life of its own.
What are some of your favorite unromantic movies? Tell us in the Comments.