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  Rich Kids Divorce American Style
Year: 1979
Director: Robert M. Young
Stars: Trini Alvarado, Jeremy Levy, Kathryn Walker, John Lithgow, Terry Kiser, David Selby, Roberta Maxwell, Paul Dooley, Irene Worth, Diane Stilwell, Dianne Kirksey, Olympia Dukakis, Jill Eikenberry, Kathryn Grody, Beatrice Winde, Jack Hausman, Patti Hansen
Genre: Comedy, Drama, RomanceBuy from Amazon
Rating:  6 (from 1 vote)
Review: Franny Phillips (Trini Alvarado) has made a new friend at school, the fresh arrival Jamie Harris (Jeremy Levy) whose parents divorced some time ago, so he lives with his father Ralph (Terry Kiser) in his swanky apartment. Franny's parents Madeline (Kathryn Walker) and Paul (John Lithgow) have a slightly less lavish place but are still financially comfortable - not so in their relationship, as they are in the process of splitting up having fallen out of love. However, they are determined to keep up the fa├žade of a stable marriage for the sake of their daughter, and have engineered a somewhat convoluted set-up to convince her that all is well - but she is well aware, noting her father's return...

Yes, daddy spends almost every night out of the family home and pretends to have slept there with Madeline when he is actually out of the house completely. This may sound absurd, but something in the presentation convinced you this was the way adults behaved, tying themselves in knots to keep the kids happy even as their inner lives are suffering great turmoil. But Rich Kids was not the only drama about divorce from 1979, as its thunder was well and truly stolen by rival production Kramer vs Kramer, an Oscar-winner that depicted the situation as emotionally harrowing for everyone involved, from the separating parents to any child at the heart of a custody battle, and that won.

At the box office, at least, but this was not about putting its characters through Hell as they tried to adapt to the post-sexual revolution mores of the seventies, it had a more benevolent view, as if these folks were simply silly billies where the supposed adults acted as petulantly and petty as their offspring were presumed to. It went further than that, as those kids were able to handle their emotions and relationships with a maturity that belied their years, suggesting the next generation would have to be accustomed to their parents not necessarily being in love with each other forever, and indeed any partner they romantically connected with may not stick around either in their futures.

This could have been the source of anguish and sorrow, yet playwright Judith Ross's screenplay (the only one she ever had produced) was keen to emphasise the humour, and to that end gleefully put the words of wisdom in the mouths of the children rather than the grown-ups. The results could arguably be accused of trivialising a serious subject, but with the passage of time and many, many films which featured divorced couples as a matter of course, be that a focus or a casual plot point, Rich Kids does not seem quite as daring as it once did on that count. Where it might be trickier for a twenty-first century audience was the seventies frankness about sex, and in this case how the twelve-year-olds react to it with some interest; it was not a major aspect, but it was there in its jokes and its denouement.

Franny and Jamie are kindling a little romance, not unlike another, similar cult movie from 1979, A Little Romance which introduced Diane Lane to the world. This was a lot less whimsical than that project, though the oddly self-contained wonderland of Ralph's home, kitted out with all the mod cons and newest bits of electronic kit, proved a safety bubble for them both as they take refuge from their parents. Of course, Ralph uses all these accoutrements, including a menagerie, as a seduction technique for a selection of younger girlfriends in full on mid-life crisis style, but for the children this is essentially a playground, albeit one where they can watch horror movies and drink champagne, which they really shouldn't be doing. The performances were strong across the board in this Robert Altman-produced item, especially Walker and Lithgow who are not objects of pity, more sympathy, but it was insubstantial when it came right down to the issues it was playing with. Also, Franny's pet sheepdog was called Shag Starbird, which sounds like a British tabloid headline. Music by Craig Doerge.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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