Leading The Blonde

When I hear the words "Merchant and Ivory," most times I reach for my remote control.

When I hear the words "Merchant and Ivory," most times I reach for my remote control. Their previous movie set in the almost-present day, A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries, is one of the few of their movies I've ever treasured. But Home Vision Entertainment has just released two of their earlier movies -- 1984's The Bostonians and 1979's The Europeans -- and they're as limp as a bad handshake.

Lovely to look at, but as intellectually stimulating as pudding. When I heard that the 75-year-old director, James Ivory; his garrulous, gregarious Indian party-giver of a producer, Ismail Merchant; and stock screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala had decided to produce Le Divorce, from Diane Johnson's smart yet frothy novel, I had my hopes up. The quirky charms of Soldier's Daughter over the unbearably stolid cadences of 2000's The Golden Bowl? It sounded like an ideal late picture for the veteran director.

And the blondes leading the blondes! Naomi Watts, freshly gleaming in her newfound stardom after Mulholland Drive and The Ring; Kate Hudson doing the bubbly post-Goldie Hawn thing; and even Glenn Close. Plus French veteran Leslie Caron, the brilliant Brit Stephen Fry, the seldom well-used yet brilliant Stockard Channing. And did I mention Bebe Neuwirth?

I'd love to just keep repeating the names of the cast like an incantation to bring out another movie. Let's think about the company name, "Merchant-Ivory." The names, twinned, suggest either a kind of burnished artifact, or a neatly constructed yet soulless product. They're after ivory, one of the most beautiful of organic substances, yet they're merchants at heart, carpentering together their peculiarly decorative yet unmemorable shop windows into the consumerist soul.

It's a cheap play on words -- good for a quick paragraph -- but I was bored. The trailers promised a romp. A bit of naughtiness. Cheeky French naughtiness. Mais non.

Kate Hudson plays Isabel, a young, still-unformed American who leaves her wealthy, privileged life in Santa Barbara for some time abroad, visiting her stepsister, Roxy (Naomi Watts). Isabel's a flirt, still a child, unlike the smart woman of the novel. Roxy's suddenly a pregnant single mom (and an unlikely, emotionally indulgent poet) when her French husband dumps her for another woman. She lets it happen. She hardly protests. To anyone who's read the novel, it's just a setup for Johnson's smart take on culture clash, European politics and the ugly symbolism of EuroDisney. But amid a groaningly large cast, which causes a kind of terrible pacing, like Robert Altman on antidepressants.

Instead of centering on Hudson, who could possibly play a kind of Holly Golightly, we instead get annoyed by all the prissy, smug folk on screen: When we return to Isabel, she's debating whether to become the mistress of a 55-year-old relative of the French side of Roxy's family (Thierry Lhermitte). Of their pairing, there's no convincing behavior or rationale spoken aloud. Conveniently, it simply happens. He likes young flesh. She's a flake. (I found myself muttering "Icky-icky-icky-icky-icky-icky." Holly-go-away.)

It's soap, but you still feel unclean. Neither sophisticated nor snickery, Le Divorce is ultimately trivial and pointless. Somehow, the mock aristocratic Merchant and Ivory seem more arrogant than any clich & eacute; you could knit up about the French. Merchant is a notorious gourmand and chef, and you'd think the movie was indulging some worthy foodie-porn with Isabel's reflection of her pampered days and nights with her sugar papa, "I felt especially guilty about the pleasure and interest I took in the restaurants we went to," she says. Could it be a perversion? I don't know. If a perversion is something boring to viewers and indifferently framed and lit, then yes.

Watts has presence to burn, but in each successive film, Hudson seems less mature than her groupie character in Almost Famous. As she gets younger, Merchant, Ivory and Jhabvala have gone whole-hog sclerotic. The characters are idiots, their pleasures unironically shallow and the movie a sad waste of a lovely city and some good actors who surely had lovely meals. It's a lovely way to pass a couple hours in the air-conditioning if you're not someone who'd rather have a couple of cold ones in a bar or a chilled glass of wine in a caf & eacute; near your home.