Franco-American Relations

'Le Divorce' offers a star-studded cast, but Kate Hudson is a puzzling choice for the lead.

Like the Farrelly Brother's' work, Merchant and Ivory's films are perfectly aimed towards their intended audience.

Of course, M&I must raise their rifles a bit higher in order to hit that target, but still, it's all about consistency of product, and, if anything, Merchant/Ivory stuff is overall more reliably similar than the Farrelly's stuff, and it tends to be just as good at following a recipe, substituting Dorchester accents and literary references for the bowls of dog vomit that the Farrellys have lovingly served up on our cinematic tables.

So if you're a fan of Howard's End, Remains of the Day and Room with a View, I can't imagine you wouldn't want to see Le Divorce, though it is a bit lighter and more Kate Hudson-centered than those earlier films.

It also takes place not in England, but in France, and stars a bunch of Americans and an Australian. Which is really just as well, because, contrary to popular opinion, neither Ismail Merchant nor James Ivory is English. It's true: In fact, James Ivory is so déclassé that he's actually American!

Ismail Merchant, the financial half of the duo, though, is at least Indian, which is a bit closer to being English. If you want to ask him personally about this, or about any of his films, including Savages--the only collaboration between the Merchant/Ivory team and someone who would be a Saturday Night Live cast member--you can do so this Friday, Aug. 15, at 8 p.m. at the Loft. Merchant will be there to introduce Le Divorce and to answer questions afterwards, but you'd better arrive early because, in spite of the Loft's capaciousness, it's sure to sell out. I mean, this is Ismail Freaking Merchant, the man who practically invented high-end middlebrow entertainment.

Of course, after hearing I.Merchant pitch his wares and defend his art, you might want to stay to see his latest offering, though I think the true fan will be a bit disapointed with this particular outing, as it's slighter and less pretentious than the usual Merchant/Ivory product, and features only one character with an English accent.

Kate Hudson stars as Isabel Walker, a young woman who has come to France in order to visit her sister, learn about the world and have hot monkey love with the notoriously sexalicious men of Gaul. Sadly, as she arrives, her sister Roxanne's husband, Charles-Henri, is preparing to engage in that very un-French pastime of getting a divorce.

Thus, whenever she's not doing her part to smooth over the rift in Franco-American relations, Isabel must console her sister and protect her from Charles-Henri's family, who are circling about like baguette-eating vultures.

Naomi Watts plays Isabel's sister, and teaming Watts and Hudson creates a cinematic effect perhaps last seen in the ill-fated Abbot and Costello and Laurence Olivier. While Hudson comes from the PrettyGirl School of Acting, where young ingenues learn how to smile and make big, big eyes, Watts is one of the best actresses of this, or any, generation. She vanishes so completely into roles that it's hard to believe she's not the person she's playing.

The strangest scene in the movie comes when Watts, Hudson and Glenn Close (playing a high-brow American writer who hangs out in middlebrow movies with the low-brow children of Goldie Hawn) sit down for lunch. With Close's stagey and theatrical performance, Watt's hyper-naturalism and Hudson's bewildered eye-lash batting, it's as though actresses from three different films have accidentally wandered onto the same set.

And it's a rather crowded set. While the narrative follows Watt's divorce, it focuses more on Hudson's affair with an older, married man, and then throws in sub-plots about a crazed American with a gun (Matthew "I'll take any role" Modine), a painting that may or may not be worth millions, an additional romance with Kate Hudson and a younger, single guy, and a spy story about an alien metavirus that gives ordinary humans the power to walk through cheese.

It also has an enormous cast, including such shining lights as Bebe Neuwirth, Sam Waterston and Stockard Channing. With so much acting talent in this film, the casting of Kate Hudson in the lead becomes especially bewildering. I think this could have been a succesful film without her, as it's reasonably witty and proceeds at a decent pace.

While the story could have been tighter, many of the performances, especially that of Thierry Lhermite as Hudson's older lover, are compelling and rich. It's especially sad to think that the Merchant and Ivory team would succumb to casting by looking at someone's rating on the Entertainment Tonight Hot Meter, but it seems that's what they did with Hudson.

Or perhaps I'm mistaken. In any event, there's a way to find out: Go see Ismail Merchant and ask him. Le Divorce is at least entertaining enough to sit through, in spite of Hudson's performance, and afterwards, you can grill Merchant about everything from his penchant for English lit to his notorious talent for raising cash. And then, who knows, if you're young and pretty and related to someone famous, maybe he'll cast you in his next E.M. Forster epic.