Jarv’s Birthday Series Redux: Rich Kids (1979)

Rich-Kids-3

Winding down the Birthday Series for this year, and this will be the last time, as I’m not going into the third choice films (that way madness lies) and we come to the third last review: 1979’s Rich Kids (release date 17th August in the USA). This would not, outside of the Birthday Series, ever be a film that I would have gone out of my way to watch because it’s a drama about divorce and I find it a matter of mild curiosity how many of these type of films were released in the late 70’s. It seems as if Divorce was some kind of taboo subject that Hollywood had finally worked up the balls to take on, and so they did what Hollywood always does and splurge a load out. Some, as in Kramer v Kramer are considered classic now, but others, such as the subject of today’s review, have justifiably sunk into the abyss and are forgotten. Occasionally those films have some kind of value, and are unjustly overshadowed by their more famous counterpart, but most of the time the reason they’ve been forgotten is simple: they weren’t that worthwhile or memorable in the first place, striving for mediocrity at best.

Contains vicious shrews, a suspicious lack of pictures and spoilers below

Robert Altman produced Rich Kids, and it was directed by 2nd tier TV director Robert M. Young. The script is by Judith Ross (who I can find literally nothing about other than that she was George. W. George’s wife- whoever he was), and on first glance this just screams out mediocrity. However, a quick glance at the cast is more promising with Trini Alvardo, John Lithgow, Kathryn Walker and Olympia Dukakis featuring prominently. So, on paper, what we appear to have is a somewhat of the curate’s egg: good in parts. None of this, incidentally, inspires me to watch the film.

As mentioned this is a Divorce drama. In fact, I’d go as far as saying it’s borderline award bait. I also did wonder if it hadn’t started out life as a play, because it’s so stagey that I bet you the natural home for Rich Kids would be off-Broadway. The film deals with the collapsing marriage of the Phillips, as seen through the eyes of their 12 year old daughter Franny (Alvardo), who is also coming to terms with her awakening sexuality. Every morning, the father (John Lithgow) performs an elaborate charade designed to convince Franny that he’s still with the mother (Walker), who he clearly despises. She’s not so hot on him either, but she wouldn’t be considering she’s basically a selfish witch and has binned the family so she can screw his best mate (also married). The film, incidentally, implies that she has a narcotics dependency of some description. Given the date, I’d bet on either Valium or Quaaludes. However, it plays this all very coy, and the plot doesn’t delve into this potentially interesting aside, merely some snide hints and bitchy developments regarding her inability to focus in the morning.

Lithgow’s charade is doomed to failure, as Franny is a borderline genius who reads The Joy of Sex (oh so fucking trendy for the 1970’s on the side). In cahoots with her best friend Jamie (Jeremy Levy), also the child of an intensely bitter divorce, she’s unravelled the whole façade, and is waiting for her parents to tell her the truth. In the meantime, she’s developing a burgeoning romance with Jamie, and the film is at least honest enough to show them manipulating their parents to allow them time by themselves. The inevitable disaster occurs when the parents reveal the divorce to her, and she’s caught “experimenting” with Jamie. The film ends on a relatively upbeat “Life goes on” message designed to reaffirm the adaptability and resilience of kids in the face of parental adversity.

Coping with Divorce

Coping with Divorce

There is practically nothing to like here. The plot hinges on the, frankly, ludicrous life Lithgow leads in an effort to protect his daughter from emotional turmoil and it’s so ridiculous that it borders on the embarrassing. His rant at a somnolent Walker about how he has to change his socks 4 times a day is ridiculous, particularly when we already know that Franny has twigged to the deception. If anything, his over protectiveness towards his daughter verges on the smothering, and I have no doubt that his behaviour is at least partially to blame for his ex-wife’s attitude. Speaking of which, she’s an appalling character, dreadful, actually, and I’m sure it is unintentional but the film establishes her as an incompetent parent and borderline hate figure from the outset.  The script is probably intended to be brave, but giving her monologues expanding her character that reek of outright selfishness (the one about how difficult it is deceiving her family by taking a lover is an absolute gem), strikes me as a touch misguided. And don’t even get me started on the deplorable temper tantrum when she sees Lithgow out with a younger woman on a date. This is, I’m sure, a reaction to the laissez-faire sexuality of the 60’s and early 70’s; to the baby boomers desire to have it all, but it feels overly conservative, almost reactionary.

Against the above, though, there are several vignettes that have the air of verisimilitude to it. The first is the disastrous Chinese Meal scene. Despite having been told to take Franny somewhere she likes to soften the blow of the divorce, Lithgow and Walker are so wrapped up in themselves that they take her to a Chinese meal, forgetting entirely that she dislikes Chinese food. At the table, they then stage a hideous and embarrassing battle of one-upmanship to attempt to prove which one of them cares more about the daughter. It’s painful, actually, although bleakly amusing, and when Franny eventually flees to vomit in the bathroom, it’s the obvious result of their odious performance rather than the news, as she is already mentally prepared for the announcement. This is, incidentally, the sole attempt at balance in the script, with Lithgow’s super-parent mask finally slipping.

The other moment of sheer brilliance, and it is outstanding, is when Jamie and Franny are caught in the bath. The parents partake in an elaborate screaming match with all 4 sets (divorced couples) crying havoc and passing the blame back and forth between the kids. In the meantime, the two children slip out and nobody notices. However, the cherry on this sequence is the exchange between Jamie and his natural father in the aftermath, which is touching and simply wonderful.

This brings me back to the script, again. I know this was allegedly written by a woman, but I wonder how much input her (far more successful) husband had in it. The script feels almost misogynistic in its portrayal of women with Franny’s mother being a selfish cow and Jamie’s an embittered shrew. In comparison, Franny’s father practically has a halo, while Jamie’s is irresponsible at best, but at least has the sole moment of emotional honesty in the film, and furthermore is shown as being actually quite a generous, amusing, and likeable character.

It's hard being rich when your parents hate each other

It’s hard being rich when your parents hate each other

The most significant problem I have with the film, including the latent misogyny and outright conservatism, is the intensely icky subplot with Jamie and Franny exploring their sexuality. I appreciate that this is Noo Yawk in the late 70’s, and as such is about as far removed from the world of, say, Enid Blyton as could be imagined. However, there are multiple scenes depicting their developing sexual relationship that are uncomfortable at best and borderline unpleasant at worst. I’m not sure why they are even in the film; actually, as the focus is on divorce, so perhaps it may have been more advisable to portray the innocence of the kids as paramount. Furthermore, these scenes clash with the overall conservative nature of the film, and sops such as Franny’s reading material feel strangely out of place; crass attempts to be “hip” when the film doesn’t warrant them.

Given pompous material like this, the film should be an absolute dud. That it isn’t is down to the acting. Alvardo went on to other roles, but I’ve honestly not seen her better than she is here. Franny is prone to mild depression, sure, but the performance is unbelievably strong and incredibly sympathetic. Levy has a more difficult proposition, but plays second fiddle to Alvardo ably, and puts in a warm effort as Jamie. Lithgow is showboating for the most part, sure, but his effort is hugely entertaining, while Walker does her best with what could truly be described as the shitty end of the stick.

Overall, I’m going slap bang in the middle here. I don’t like this film, and don’t recommend it, but nevertheless there is much to admire. Alvardo by herself is worth a chang, and the rest of the support is on song. However, there’s a reason that Rich Kids has sunk into obscurity, and it is simply that it isn’t very good. The script is unbalanced, overly conservative, and latently misogynistic with a grotesque and inappropriate subplot, and the film feels strangely incomplete. Furthermore, the direction and pacing are mundane, and aside from the few bright spots this really was a bit of a chore to sit through. Were the performances less than they are, then I’d be absolutely battering it, but instead I’m going for 2 spoilt bastards out of a possible 4.

2

As mentioned, there’s a reason these films disappear.

Next up is 1978’s Coma. A vastly better film based on a Robin Cook bestseller with a terrifying central idea.

Until then,

Jarv.

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About Jarv

Workshy cynic, given to posting reams of nonsense on the internet and watching films that have inexplicably got a piss poor reputation.

5 responses to “Jarv’s Birthday Series Redux: Rich Kids (1979)”

  1. ThereWolf says :

    Damn. Thought this was going to be a documentary about that 1970’s boy band of the same name…

    Good effort, Jarv. Can’t say I’ll be tuning in to watch Rich Kids any time soon though.

  2. MORBIUS says :

    Hard enough just getting through this review, will
    actively avoid this at all cost(s)!

    Rather like Coma, awaiting your perspective.

  3. Jarv says :

    @Wolf-

    Yup.

    Avoid. I can kind of admire the performances (particularly Alvardo), but it’s not one to watch. It’s funny, because there are a lot of glowing reviews out there, but this isn’t justifiable.

    @Morbi.

    I like Coma as well. It’s kind of the opposite to this in that I don’t like Bujold in the lead, but the film is good. Weird.

  4. Droid says :

    Sounds like @ poor m@ns version of Kr@mer vs Kr@mer. I sh@ll @void like @n @@rdv@rk @voids @ freew@y.

  5. tombando says :

    No Warwick Davis?! Ain’t gonna get me to watch this nossir.

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