Divorce has long been a serious cinematic subject in dramas, like Kramer vs. Kramer and Blue Valentine, for example. But it's played up mostly for laughs in the new comedy A.C.O.D. (Adult Children of Divorce).
Carter (Adam Scott), a successful restaurateur still reeling from his parents Hugh and Melissa's (Richard Jenkins and Catherine O'Hara) awful split two decades ago, is the focal point for the titular generation of tarnished angels grappling with long-gestating insecurity.
Thankfully, director Stu Zicherman (who cowrote the sharp script with Ben Karlin) avoids making a villain of any one character. Instead, the film frankly exposes how each personality is just one of many culprits in a collectively toxic relationship that continues to recycle judgment and regret. Here, the seemingly buoyant material often shows darker shades, functioning as a reminder of the ongoing pain parents inflict on their children.
Caught somewhere between slapstick and screwball, A.C.O.D. creates various comedic scenarios in which dirty laundry is aired for all to see. Hugh and Melissa spit venom at a posh restaurant, and later Carter freaks out in the middle of Japanese tea. "Public displays of personal crisis," as one character aptly refers to them, are this film's specialty.
From the opening credits, where Carter's disastrous ninth birthday at the family's lake house is caught on home video, extreme embarrassment dominates the narrative. Fear of repeating his parents' mistakes has led Carter to live a life closed off from true commitment, which has left his supportive girlfriend (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) waiting in vain.
Carter's repressed demons are awakened when his young brother impulsively decides to marry his girlfriend, suddenly pushing all warring parties back into the same ring. Tempers and emotions flare, but mostly Carter just stews. Things get worse when he finds out his experiences have been used by a writer to craft a self-help book that was a New York Times bestseller.
As A.C.O.D. transitions from its initial premise to a more serious tone, it loses some of the momentum founded in the characters' unbridled rage. But this shift makes sense considering the film's about finding a mental perspective to consider past indiscretions with out the cobwebs of melodrama clouding your vision.
The real reason to give this misfit mosaic a chance, though, is the cast of performers who, as a group, are consistently nervy in their depiction of flawed individuals.
Jenkins and O'Hara balance the right combination of loathing and lust one might find in a couple beset with such longstanding volatility. Jane Lynch is perfectly opportunistic as the hack writer who capitalizes on Carter's misfortunes. But it's Ken Howard's Gary, a sad but hopeful mentor for multiple characters, who epitomizes the film's positive outlook.
A.C.O.D. could easily have been an acidic black comedy or straightforward farce, something more akin to War of the Roses or Mrs. Doubtfire. But, thankfully, it treats divorce in a much more grounded and pragmatic way than either of those films. While the initial fault might lie with the parents, it's on the children to transcend the sins of our fathers (and mothers).
It was somewhat shocking to see this idea so perfectly realized late in A.C.O.D. After getting into a particularly nasty argument in a public place with his serpentine mother-in-law (Amy Poehler), Carter stops himself from unleashing more verbal daggers when he realizes her young children are listening to his every word.
Halting the cycle of anger is a theme many filmmakers have explored, yet Zicherman's film doesn't stop there. In A.C.O.D's wise final scene, Hugh reminisces to his sons about a life-changing moment he had as a young man, then goes on to confess that he must have had 10 or so in his lifetime. Carter and his brother are both enthralled. One can never forget that no matter their age, the kids are always watching.