This Smash-Up Is Just Smashing!

Bilingual, bipartisan, bilateral, bisexual-no matter how you bisect yourself, you will find some words that mean the same in English and French alike. No double-entendre in le divorce ; like le drugstore , it’s one of those words understood equally in Massachusetts or Montparnasse. And it’s the perfect title for the new Merchant-Ivory film about what happens when an American girl in Paris tries to divorce a French husband, and two cultures collide. The theme of Le Divorce is a Gallic spin on the old saying, “Love is eternal-as long as it lasts.” It doesn’t translate, but you’ll get the message-and enjoy it, too.

Unlike the costume epics that have made the Merchant-Ivory team famous, Le Divorce is a hip, contemporary romantic comedy, but it has all of director James Ivory’s informed compassion for lavish detail, his usual all-star ensemble of stylish personalities spread across a crowded canvas of complex emotions, dozens of settings throughout Paris, and another script of wit and intelligence by Mr. Ivory and the unofficial third member of the Merchant-Ivory team, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. The elements blend smoothly to create a delightful blend of American sensibility and French chaos in a movie that is sunny, surprising and consistently entertaining. Based on the 1997 novel by Diane Johnson, it’s the chronicle of an American-style marital smash-up dressed in a fashionable and sophisticated couture of manners and morals that is decidedly French. Amidst the fabulous food in four-star Michelin restaurants and the stratospheric shopping sprees on the Rue St. Honore (talk about a location shoot that looks like quel fun!), three plot lines converge: the Parisian-style coming of age of Isabel (Kate Hudson), a California peach with a Technicolor smile who arrives in Paris to find her pregnant half-sister Roxy in the middle of a domestic crisis; the emotional upheaval of Roxy (Naomi Watts), an expatriate poet married to a pompous, irresponsible French scoundrel who has now deserted her for a lusty Czech mistress who is married in turn to a jealous American psycho (Matthew Modine); and the two sisters’ battle to save a family heirloom from being confiscated by the French-a valuable Baroque painting, created in France but brought over from Los Angeles, now wanted by three museums. Very complex stuff, peppered with characters that come and go like aperitifs, and it gets denser scene by scene.

While helping Roxy through her pregnancy and depression, Isabel gets a job working for Olivia Pace (Glenn Close), another American expatriate who is writing her memoirs after decades of sexual, political and literary adventures in the City of Light-a combination of Mary McCarthy and Susan Sontag, no doubt, but, as played by Ms. Close, looking more like Janet Flanner. Isabel also researches her own definition of l’amour fou with a much older, very married French diplomat (French heartthrob Thierry Lhermitte), who also happens to be the uncle of Roxy’s two-timing husband. Add to the bouillabaisse the girls’ parents (Stockard Channing and Sam Waterston), who want to drag poor, deserted Roxy and her priceless painting back to Santa Barbara; the Getty Museum’s art curator (Bebe Neuwirth) and the pompous art expert for the Old Masters division of Christie’s in London (ribald Oscar Wilde look-alike Stephen Fry), two rivals in the art world with material designs on Roxy’s painting, both fighting to smuggle the canvas out of France; and Suzanne de Persand (Leslie Caron), Roxy’s imperial mother-in-law and the controlling matriarch of her son’s upper-class family, who will stop at nothing to apply the tenets of French divorce law for her own domestic materialism. Somehow it all comes to an explosive head in a spray of melodramatic bullets on top of the Eiffel Tower, with Matthew Modine getting even with everybody, perhaps for the smallness of his role. The ersatz ending, which I won’t spoil, is unconvincing enough to be the one disappointment in an otherwise radiant experience. But even if you tire of the pace, the plotting and the population, you’ll love the jewels, the 17th-century furniture, the excursion to Leslie Caron’s country estate, Mr. Lhermitte’s sexy bachelor den in Montmartre, the luxurious lunch at Laperouse, the arrondissements which architecturally change personalities as fast as the people who live in them … in short, all the things that make Paris Paree. Kate Hudson, as the film’s centerpiece, more than makes up for the lame work she’s done in her last four films, and the rest of the performances are juicy as profiteroles and stylish as Lanvin. Pierre Lhomme’s bright, polished cinematography bounces off the retina like holiday sparklers, the memorable music by Merchant-Ivory veteran Richard Robbins is rich and sensual, and the masterful editing by John David Allen is a moving collage of images, sounds and tempos that keeps the movie on its feet from start to finish.

In a summer of wet noodles, Le Divorce is a Sunday picnic in the park with a modern, zonked-out George.

Turkey Time

Everyone has machine-gunned the catastrophic Gigli for an infinite number of perfectly justifiable reasons, but as tired as I am of the lousy, misguided Ben Affleck–Jennifer Lopez duet, I still don’t find their vulgar, overhyped love song as sour and off-key as the one once howled by Sean Penn and Madonna, or Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley. If only they would restrict their boring public affair to the lenses of the paparazzi and not the cameras of the motion-picture screen, saving sane and paying customers hours of undeserved punishment, and move it to somewhere private we don’t want to know about, like a mud slide in Bosnia. But here they are, in torturous closeups, on a mall screen near you, reminding the world how superficial, badly advised, greedy for fame and fanfare, desperate for money and attention, and pathetically incompetent they both are in the only two things that matter in career longevity-craft and talent. As oblivious as they are to criticism, and as unwilling as they are to learn from past mistakes (would you believe they’ve got yet another movie on the way?), they seem doomed to frivolity and make-believe. I predict the worst. Remember, even Mrs. Lincoln liked a good play.

Trying to analyze Gigli is like constructing a rocket ship out of paper clips. It’s a moronic maze about a bungling Los Angeles hit man named Gigli (rhymes with “feely”), dispatched to kidnap the mentally disabled kid brother (Justin Bartha) of a federal prosecutor. Joining him is another Hollywood contractor (J. Lo) who does yoga and gets a lot of unintentional laughs quoting Eastern philosophy. She is also a lesbian who blabs a lot of contrived bilge about the power of vaginas that cannot be quoted here. As a matter of fact, the dialogue in this fiasco is so filthy and inane you can’t even write it down. Shapeless and without a shred of originality, the movie mimics and copies pieces of a number of old movies, all superior in every way. The kid counts sunflower seeds and sings hip-hop songs and gets on your nerves faster than Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man . Though it defeats the purposes of motivation and logic, Mr. Affleck’s tough, tattooed mob slob falls for the man-hating lesbian the same way he did in Chasing Amy , mysteriously converting her to heterosexuality when she throws him on the bed, mounts him for the silliest sex scene in movie history and announces, “It’s turkey time!” (A line that makes no sense without a baster.) Turkey sex apparently softens their hard hearts, if not their hilariously fumbling accents. There’s a big deal about feeling blue about cutting off the retarded kid’s thumb and mailing it to his brother. So they break into the morgue and saw the thumb off a corpse with a plastic knife while the kid sings the rap song “Baby Got Back.” The two stars are only slightly less plastic than the knife, but a great deal phonier. They are undeniably buff and wear as little as possible to prove it, but they remain pitifully clueless when required to pronounce a word containing more than two syllables or play a scene for even the most minimal dramatic impact. Writer-director Martin Brest offers no help in the direction of realism. While the garbage mounts, he distracts from our irritability quotient with screechingly dissonant cameos by Lainie Kazan, Christopher Walken and Al Pacino, who won an undeserved Oscar in Mr. Brest’s Scent of a Woman and doesn’t mind trashing his reputation to say thanks. Will anybody see this movie, or-like Madonna in Swept Away -will it vanish without a fingerprint to prove it ever existed in the first place? Lurid curiosity seekers may check it out, like the ambulance chasers who flock to fires and the freaks who would pay anything for a front-row seat at a public execution.

I would consider it miraculous if any of the victims of Gigli ever spoke to each other again, but knowing Hollywood, they are probably already planning a sequel.

Hope Springs Eternal

Bob Hope lasted a whole century, and for the next 100 years they’ll probably still be rewarding him for it. Although he made few films of any impact or lasting importance, he did win five Oscars-not for his acting, but for humanitarian causes and industry contributions. He was more famous for his sarcastic one-liners, celebrity golf tournaments and flag-waving, morale-boosting trips to the battlefronts of every war where the American military saw action than he was for his movies. Still, the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center is celebrating this show-business institution from Aug. 8 to 14 with a 13-film salute called “Thanks for the Memories,” which was planned long before he died on July 27. The Film Society of Lincoln Center has creepy but perfect timing, if you ask me.

While the menu spans the highlights of his comedy career, it offers few surprises. Four of the best Bob Hope movies- Fancy Pants and Critic’s Choice , both with Lucille Ball, and Sorrowful Jones and The Lemon Drop Kid , both based on Damon Runyon tales-are curiously missing. Three of the seven popular but now hopelessly dated Road pictures he made with Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour are included, as well as two films that hold up better- The Paleface and The Facts of Life (also with Lucille Ball). What you won’t see much of-and this is an area of his achievement people always overlook-is the positively amazing number of songs Ol’ Ski Nose introduced on stage and screen. Before he ever journeyed west in 1938, Leslie Townes Hope had already sung Jerome Kern’s “You’re Devastating” in Roberta and performed Cole Porter’s “It’s De-Lovely” with Ethel Merman and Jimmy Durante in Red, Hot and Blue . But he really made history in 1936, when Ira Gershwin teamed with Vernon Duke to write the score for the musical revue Ziegfeld Follies of 1936 . This sensation starred Fanny Brice, Josephine Baker, Gertrude Niesen, Judy Canova and the dancing Nicholas Brothers, but it was newcomer Bob Hope who stopped the show, singing “I Can’t Get Started” to bored showgirl Eve Arden while she yawned and manicured her nails. Hollywood called, and the rest is history.

At Paramount, Hope’s warbling abilities were under-utilized, especially after he teamed with Crosby. The writing team of Burke and Van Heusen created several musical masterpieces for those dopey Road pictures, but they were all sung by Der Bingle. Still, in The Big Broadcast of 1938 , his first Hollywood film, Hope turned “Thanks for the Memory” into a popular standard that became his theme song for the rest of his life. In the western spoof The Paleface (1948), he turned a throwaway ditty by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans called “Buttons and Bows” into such a smash hit that the song won an Academy Award. I laugh every time I see Bob Hope saddle up to voluptuous Jane Russell on the lyric line “My bones denounce … the buckboard bounce.” Three years later, in The Lemon Drop Kid , the same songwriting team provided Hope with another blockbuster, and “Silver Bells” became an annual holiday classic. The king of wisecracks was also no slug when it came to plugging tunes.

Bob Hope: funny icon, international hero, buried wearing more medals than General Eisenhower. A bigger celebration seems mandatory. But let’s face it-death at 100 years old lacks a certain spontaneity. This Smash-Up Is Just Smashing!