Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Not-So-Great Divorce

Marriage has been in the news lately. Everyone’s talking about what the word means. Heck, a lot of people wonder if it’s still even relevant. More and more, people just live together, cohabitating, instead of getting married. In light of this, a movie I just saw is strangely prescient. 

A.C.O.D. stands for Adult Children of Divorce and has a go at our current culture of self-indulgence under the cover of a black comedy/farce. The protagonist, Carter (Adam Scott), is a seemingly well-adjusted young fellow with a career and girlfriend (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). He is the titular Adult Child of Divorce and finds his world turned upside down when his younger brother (Clark Duke) decides to get married. After overcoming the initial shock, Carter realizes that the only chance for the wedding to be a success is if his divorced parents (Richard Jenkins, Catherine O’Hara) are not involved in any way. The only problem: his parents see the wedding as an opportunity to get back at each other for unforgiven past transgressions. Wacky hijinks ensue, surprisingly bringing the former Mr. and Mrs. back together again. This results in a resurgence of all the bad memories Carter has of his unhappy childhood, and he starts to come unravelled.

It's almost like déjà vu... (and it's a gif - get it?) 
This is not your typical R-rated Hollywood comedy, for beyond the profanity lies a deeper core. In a discussion with the San Diego Reader about the film, interviewer Matthew Lickona and Adam Scott have this exchange:
ML: One thing I couldn't figure out was how seriously the film itself took divorce.
AS: Well, I think it's a comedy, and it's a comedy about divorce. I think the stakes of the divorce are pretty clearly laid out, because we're seeing the effects of the divorce twenty years later on. So I think in the context of the movie, the characters take it pretty seriously, because their lives are pretty screwed up by it. But it is a comedy, so it's trying to, you know, make it funny as well.
It succeeds at that, for while not being a laugh a minute, the movie used solid writing and wit to crack a smile on my face. I’m not going to attempt to recount some of the humor here, first because some of the jokes are borderline unprintable and second because you really should watch the film. 

Back to the story: As Carter melts down in a fashion reminiscent of Jason Bateman’s Michael Bluth in Arrested Development, the film allows us to see the real damage his parents’ divorce had on him. Carter has run a restaurant to create a new family for himself, albeit with members he can fire, as his former psychiatrist (Jane Lynch) wryly notes. He’s been with his girlfriend for four years but is so disenchanted by the idea of marriage that he’s never even considered proposing. The threat of his parents getting back together blinds Carter to the chance that this reconciliation could be genuine and not just bad news for him. When his parents were together, their constant arguments made life miserable, a prime example being how their fighting ruined his ninth birthday as they hurled insults at each other while birthday cake was being served. That’s not to say that their divorced life was any easier on Carter, as they used him as a means to wound each other. However, as he grew up, Carter believed he could control the damage they were dealing to an extent that their reunion throws all of that away. Call it grace or something else, but the opportunity for Carter’s parents to reconcile is a good thing. The divorce is not the best solution for their situation — it did nothing to correct their personal flaws.
You see, divorce (and creative use of scissors) solves everything!
I won’t spoil the ending of the movie, but suffice to say that the message is that while marriage may have been messed up by our parents’ generation, it’s still worth attempting. G.K. Chesterton once said,  “Marriage is a duel to the death, which no man of honour should decline.” For all that is said about whatever the divorce rate is at any point in time, it really has no bearing on whether we should continue to hold marriage sacred. 

If you really think Jesus is who He said He is, then I’d take Him at His word that marriage is for life. It’s quite something that people have the same hang-ups about marriage today as they did 2,000 years ago. Moses’ Law allowed divorce, but it took Christ’s fulfillment of the Old Covenant and beginning of the New Covenant to elevate it to new levels of sanctity. That’s not to say it’s a challenging ideal to keep to today. As John Zmirak writes in The Bad Catholic’s Guide to Good Living, “The average Westerner who marries today and doesn’t divorce can expect to sit beside that person in Atlantic City forty years from now, counting liver spots and feeding the slots.” Our fallen natures don’t help much either, but marriage is a Sacrament in the Church for a reason: to help us in some way achieve some lasting happiness on Earth more than mere fleeting pleasure. 

The effects of Original Sin certainly didn’t make it any easier for Carter or his parents to find happiness — he was so shell shocked by their behavior he withdrew into a selfish shell of mediocrity, while they haplessly flitted from affair to affair. Sexuality matters. That’s why the Church recognizes that society’s well-being is tied to individual behavior and especially that of men and women in families. In the Papal Encyclical Gaudium et Spes, Pope Paul VI focused on that point, in addition to reminding the world that the right use of human sexuality within marriage is a good thing for society. Marriage rightly understood requires the development of personal virtue, particularly temperance, which yields patience, generosity, self-control, and sexual maturity. There are 2,000 years of human history intertwined in the tradition of the Roman Catholic Church. People don’t like the idea of the Church telling them how to live, but is being left to our own devices really preferable when we have a guide who’s seen it all? what bwings us togevah today.
At the end of the film, as Carter’s father reflects on a past indiscretion in a Portuguese whorehouse, he remarks “...and I remember thinking, 'Maybe I can just stay here. Maybe this is exactly where I’m supposed to be. Wow.' And you know, I’ve had that feeling at least ten times in my life.” Merely “following your heart” or “doing what feels good” will only get you so far. Holy Mother Church is here to guide us and help us obtain forgiveness for our failings. We human beings, we’re not perfect — so why go it alone?

1 comment:

  1. The question asked at the very end of this piece -- "why go it alone?" -- is something that I foresee becoming a crisis point for young adults of today. They spend so much time "communicating" with others in a solitary fashion (texting) that many of them barely know how to make eye contact and have a real conversation. It's sad to see so many of them thinking they're socializing when they're really alone. Doesn't bode well for marriage, let alone just living with someone.