The other afternoon, I got pulled into watching a poignant movie about a broken man locked in a bitter custody fight with his ex-wife, a single mom attempting to regain some semblance of normalcy at home while learning to navigate the dating world again. Through the turmoil, both parents try to prove their merit and do what they believe is best without fully realizing the negative effect their discord has had on their kids.
It was moving. It was heartwarming. It was Mrs. Doubtfire.
Surprised? So was I. I’m pretty sure that it was the first time I’d sat down and watched the 1993 classic in its entirety since my own divorce, and I saw it through different eyes. It wasn’t just about Robin Williams pulling off a convincing disguise as a grandmotherly nanny – it was about a family’s transformation following the trauma of divorce. Watch it again and you will see that the comedy is actually a multilayered story about how love prevails. It’s much deeper than a latex face mask.
It also got me thinking about the other great divorce-themed movies out there – and how a breakup not only drives some great cinematic conflict, it is often the catalyst for a better second act for our beloved characters. Here are 10 titles that I enjoyed before my divorce, but really came to appreciate in a new way afterwards. What are some of your favorites?
1. Enough Said
Cleverly insightful with a heart is the best way to describe this witty, charming film. Divorced Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) hits it off with Albert (James Gandolfini) around the same time she befriends Marianne, who complains about her ex-husband’s faults a great deal. When Eva suddenly realizes that Albert is Marianne’s ex, all of the criticism she’s soaked up about him begins to sour her feelings just as a potentially great romance blossoms. A great movie for anyone dipping a toe or taking the plunge back into the dating pool.
2. Under the Tuscan Sun
Frances’ divorce just may be the best thing to ever happen to her! After discovering her husband’s affair, leading to the darkest, most depressing period of her life, Frances is prompted by her friend to take a holiday in Italy. While there, she impulsively buys an abandoned Tuscan villa in need of restoration. Of course, it’s a metaphor for her life and starting anew. Although the sumptuous backdrop is a travelogue, the real theme here is that home is not a place – home is the people you love.
I didn’t like this movie at first sight, but it has certainly grown on me over the years. What I appreciate about it is that depicts both the mother (Susan Sarandon) and stepmother (Julia Roberts) as imperfect – it doesn’t shy from the mistakes they each make and in doing so, creates empathy for both parties. It’s rare that you can have compassion for both the protagonist and the so-called antagonist and end up rooting for both. This is totally a “walk a mile in her shoes” story. Oh, and bring Kleenex.
4. The Break-Up
Okay, so this is technically not a “divorce” movie per se, but I’m including it because it’s about the Mine vs. Yours mentality, the manipulations, and the general mindf*ck at the end of a long-term relationship. After deciding to break up, Brooke and Gary wage a nasty battle of the sexes over who will keep their luxurious Chicago condo by trying to drive the other one out. It’s only when they are both too tired to fight do they realize how much was actually lost – but by then, it’s too late.
5. It’s Complicated
Writer and director Nancy Meyers (The Holiday, Something’s Gotta Give, Baby Boom) can do no wrong in my eyes, and this rom-com about an unconventional love triangle is another winner. Meryl Streep plays a successful, middle-aged divorcee caught between an affair with her remarried ex, Alec Baldwin, and moving on with a sweet new romance with Steve Martin. Consider it a cautionary tale of why sex with an ex is like ramen noodles when you’re drunk – it may hit the spot but let’s face it, it’s never anyone’s first choice.
6. The Squid & The Whale
It could be because they both star Jeff Daniels, but this one always reminds me of Terms of Endearment: messy, quirky characters who display raw human emotion. Rotten Tomatoes said it best: “This is a piercingly honest, acidly witty look at divorce and its impact on a family.” It also has Laura Linney, who is pretty much a goddess in everything she does. I’ll warn you, it’s harrowing and hard to watch, especially how torn up the kids are, so if your own divorce is close to the surface, skip this one for the time being.
7. Crazy Stupid Love
I’m tempted to call this the ultimate chump movie because no one plays chump better than Steve Carell. His character, Cal, is living the perfect life – until it suddenly comes undone when his unfaithful wife announces she wants a divorce. Lovelorn and sinking quickly in the quagmire that is dating over 40, Cal turns to smooth ladies’ man Jacob (Ryan Gosling) for advice on how to be a player. Multiple storylines about finding The One are expertly woven together in this script by Dan Fogelman (This is Us).
You probably weren’t expecting a disaster flick to make the list, but here it is. The tornadoes may be the scene stealers (“we got cows!”), but the plot is driven by an estranged couple on the brink of divorce. Just as an intense series of weather systems roll through Oklahoma, meteorologist Bill shows up with his perky new fiancée and the divorce papers that stormchaser Jo has managed to avoid signing. A staticky clash of immoveable fronts causes chaos to ensue – and the storms are pretty wicked, too.
9. Something To Talk About
There are two things you gotta love about this movie: 1) Grace finds out her husband Eddie has been cheating, and finds refuge with her sister, Emma Rae (who delivers a well-placed knee squarely to Eddie’s groin). Sisters rock! 2) Grace calls out Eddie in front of his bar buddies (who hasn’t entertained that revenge fantasy?) and later, stands up at a meeting and asks who else among the tightly-buttoned chin wags has slept with her husband – before revealing the skeletons in others’ marital closets.
10. The First Wives Club
You know I couldn’t complete this Top 10 list without including screen queens Diane Keaton, Bette Midler and Goldie Hawn. After having been recently dumped for someone younger and hotter, our heroines unite and begin plotting their retaliation by hitting their ex-husbands where it hurts: in the bank account. In the end of course, the women pick themselves up, dust themselves off and and think better of payback, realizing instead that the best revenge is, indeed, living well.