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Litigation. Collaborative Law. Mediation.

Hooray for Hollywood: Divorce Lessons From Film


Evan Schein, Head of Litigation at Berkman Bottger Newman & Schein LLP and host of the Schein On Podcast recently took a “lighter” look at divorce when he reviewed some all-time classic and modern movies, and how their characters handled divorce. From the heartbreaking to the absurd, Hollywood never holds back when portraying marriage and divorce on-screen, and Schein breaks down some of these scenes from a lawyer’s point of view.

Did you miss Episode 20 of the Schein On PodcastListen here!

Mrs. Doubtfire: “All my love to you, poppet”

In this end scene from the 1993 Robin Williams movie Mrs. Doubtfire, we hear Williams as Mrs. Doubtfire giving a poignant speech about divorced parents and how they never stop loving their kids. This is after his wife, played by Sally Field, has won custody of their children. However, this speech makes her realize that the kids also need time with their dad. Watch the clip.

This movie shows the lengths a parent will go to see their children, and “how parents can use the litigation process, [and] choices that a parent may make against when they’re in a custody fight,” Schein said. When a couple goes to court for child custody and asks a judge to decide, one parent has to “win” and one parent has to “lose.” In Mrs. Doubtfire, Sally Field’s character realizes at the end that the judge’s decision was not necessarily the right one for her children and allows the children parenting time with their father after all.

This is why it is so important for parents to try and work together before resorting to litigation – parents know what is best for their children.

Kramer vs. Kramer: “Who’s going to read me my bedtime stories?”

Anyone who has seen the 1979 film Kramer vs. Kramer is familiar with the heartstring-tugging scene when Dustin Hoffman’s character tells his son he will be going to live with his mother. Hoffman gently explains to his son that he and his ex-wife met with a judge, and that judge decided that the son would live with his mom. As he explains this, his son gets more and more upset, crying and asking about his toys and bedtime stories. The film is a definite tearjerker and won several Academy Awards. Watch the clip.

But aside from showing the difficulties that adults face when they separate, the film poignantly exposes the thing most parents truly fear: hurting their children, even when they try so hard not to do so. “This is a short clip,” Schein says, “but it’s super impactful.” He goes on:

First, discussing what’s next for children following a divorce or separation is never easy. Children often have so many questions – and then more questions, and then questions on top of those questions. Understanding how to try and answer these questions as a parent going through a divorce, trying to address a child’s concerns, fears, nerves – about so much – now, and in the future. It’s not easy.

He also points out the realities of litigating a child custody case – that the judge is the one who decides how custody will be structured. Dustin Hoffman’s character is honest and tells his son that they have been meeting with a judge for several days, but the end result is still heartbreaking.

War of the Roses: “I advise skipping the fish”

In this 1989 classic dark comedy, Kathleen Turner and Michael Douglas are an acrimonious divorcing couple living in the same house, each of whom refuse to give up any marital assets. This scene sees Douglas attempting to ruin a dinner party his wife is throwing to impress clients, which culminates in him urinating on the main course, the fish. Watch the clip. (Note: NSFW language)

Although a comedy, this movie “shows how low things can sink when a divorced couple is at odds,” per David Yas, producer of the Schein On Podcast.

“My first thought is I’m officially not eating fish for dinner,” Schein quips about the clip. But he goes on to explain why the clip is a good example of why judges often feel that couples should not live together during a divorce. Even though exaggerated for film, he notes, the behavior exhibited by the characters in this movie could be considered harassment, grounds for a restraining order, and even affect decisions on custody and parenting.

Wedding Crashers: “That glass looks half-full to me”

In this 2005 comedy, Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughan, per the title, crash weddings. The scene in question, however, is the opening one where we find out their characters are divorce mediators. We open on a couple in their office with their respective attorneys, in a loud and profane argument about who gets the frequent flyer miles. Wilson and Vaughan’s unorthodox approach to resolving the conflict succeeds – even as they try to nab themselves some of those miles. Watch the clip. (Note: NSFW language)

Schein points out that, as absurd and comedic as this scene is, it does show the power of a good divorce mediator. Susan Guthrie, a previous guest on the Schein On Podcast was right, Schein points out, “when she said that any case can be mediated with the right mediator and the right process in place – even the high-conflict divorce.” In the clip, the mediator duo reminds the ex-spouses of their early courtship and wedding day, noting that they did like each other at one point. By redirecting the conversation to focus on the positives, the mediators were able to bring the couple together and agree on their property division.

Do you have a favorite divorce movie? We made a list of other impactful films handling marriage and divorce that you might want to check out:

  • It’s Complicated (Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin)
  • Marriage Story (Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson)
  • The First Wives Club (Diane Keaton, Goldie Hawn, Bette Midler)
  • Wonderful (Matt Dillon, Anabella Sciorra)

Whether these characters handle separation and divorce in a healthy or unhealthy manner, we can take some lessons from Hollywood and know that we are not alone.

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If you have questions about divorce, child custody, or property division, talk to the family law attorneys at Berkman Bottger Newman & Schein LLP. Schedule a consultation today by calling (212) 466-6015 or filling out our contact form. Proudly serving New York, Westchester, and Bergen County, NJ.