This is a film about a marriage, or perhaps, the dissolution of a marriage, aided and abetted by lawyers for both parties. The couple, Charlie and Nicole, start the film living together but estranged. Nicole tells Charlie, “I want an entirely different kind of life.” When Nicole hands Charlie the official petition for divorce Charlie dumbly says, “Thanks.”
Early on in the story and Charlie and Nicole are reading a story to their son Henry caught in the middle. Tears quietly roll down Charlie’s cheeks. Bewildered Henry does not understand what is going on.
The marriage mediator, trying to help them through this process, asks both of them to make a list of things each likes about the other. Nicole is too embarrassed to read the list Charlie made about her. So we don’t get to see the list yet. The couple agrees that their divorce will be easy, non-confrontational, and uncontested.
Nicole has sought the services of an aggressive female attorney Nora. One of the lawyers had a pillow on the office couch with the words, “Eat, drink, and Remarry.”
Then, of course, the lawyers get involved. And that soon changes everything. Charlie visits a young, aggressive and expensive lawyer, Jay Marotta, who urges Charlie to fight dirty. Charlie balks at this and hires a more congenial lawyer Bert Spitz. Spitz says “divorce is like a death without a body.” Later when Charlie grumbles about the process, Spitz says, “you do this because you love your kids, but because you’re doing this the money comes from the kids’ education.” Spitz also advises Charlie to spend as much time as he can with his son. “Many people fight for this right and then don’t use it,” he says. In reply, Charlie says “you’re the first person in this process who spoke to me like a human being.”
Yet when the “amicable” process fails, Charlie goes back to his aggressive lawyer. “I need my own asshole,” Charlie says. He also adds, “It’s going to be a fight now; we’re going to ask for things we never wanted.” Someone remarks, “the system rewards bad behaviour.” Too often that is true. What a great system? That’s how things go when lawyers get involved. The lawyers, all of them, are unhelpful, cynical, mean, shallow, and greedy. And these are their good characteristics. The young boy is caught between 2 trigger-happy parents. And he is selfish and unreasonable, like kids often are.
So the couple tries to settle the matter themselves directly without lawyers and it does not go well. Soon they are yelling at each other. Reason has vanished. Charlie in particular gets transformed by selfishness, but Nicole is not a model of kindness either. Soon Charlie breaks down in embarrassment at his own actions, weeping and begging for forgiveness. The couple is able to relax their demands and Nora brags that she got her client more custody than she wanted, but urges her to take it. “Take it you won.” Is this what winning looks like? Aside from the lawyers who wins in a divorce?
Near the end the list Charlie and Nicole made about the good points of the other are revealed. At least, Charlie sees what Nicole liked about him and he breaks down crying.
As happens too often in real life, the lawyers don’t make a strong positive contribution to the process. They are excellent street fighters, but is that what the couple needed? It seemed to bring out the worst in both parents.
A great system? I think not. But this was a very good movie.