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'Le Divorce': breaking up is hard to do comically

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Three decades ago, an unreliable auto from Renault could sell well in the United States because the company labeled it Le Car. Fox Searchlight probably won't be as successful with its botched high comedy Le Divorce.

This maladroit adaptation of Diane Johnson's novel stars Naomi Watts as an American poet in Paris abandoned by her French husband even though she's pregnant with their second child. Kate Hudson co-stars as Watts' younger half-sister, who lends amoral support while treating the City of Light as her cultural and erotic finishing school.

The director, James Ivory, who co-wrote the script with Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, fails to establish a defining mood or attitude. Despite a cast including Sam Waterston and Stockard Channing as the girls' parents and Leslie Caron as Watts' mother-in-law, you'd get a fuller aesthetic experience listening to the book on tape while clicking through the locales on an old View-Master stereoscope.

Ivory and company don't come close to satirizing or dissecting the foolishness and attractiveness of the plucky, naive Yankees and the aristocratic, more subtly materialistic French. (Complications involve whether Watts retains ownership of a painting that may be by Georges de La Tour.)

The movie bobbles along on a weird, soft-edged sarcasm. When it comes to inducing queasiness, the Yanks win hands down - and not just because Matthew Modine shows up as a deranged, gun-toting American. We can infer why Watts' oncle-in-law (Thierry Lhermitte), a dapper right-wing spokesman verging on elder-states man status, would want to have sex with Hudson.

But watching her make the moves on him, we presume that she's plotting to disgrace her brother-in-law's family. So we're flabbergasted to discover that she's genuinely smitten. (Johnson's novel does take us inside her dizzy head.)

Ivory's heavy rep for literary adaptation rests on the skill of actors like Vanessa Redgrave and Emma Thompson in Howards End, who project their characters' hearts and minds the way a ventriloquist throws a voice. Hudson, for all her charm, lacks that ability. The sole explanation we get for her behavior comes when Glenn Close, as an expatriate woman of letters, says that sleeping with such an august man is tantamount to sleeping with God.

That statement squares le queasiness of Le Divorce.

Le Divorce

Starring Kate Hudson and Naomi Watts

Directed by James Ivory

Released by Fox Searchlight

Rated PG-13

Time 113 minutes

Sun Score *

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