Neither divorce nor marriage seems a particularly enticing prospect after a viewing of “Divorce Corp.,” a vigorous but clumsily argued expose of the corrupt family-court practices that have turned one of life’s more painful experiences into a $50 billion-a-year industry. Chock-full of slick graphics, smart talking heads, one-sided emotional appeals and flailing accusations of judicial misconduct, Joe Sorge’s documentary has a depressingly relatable subject that could garner homevid interest following brief theatrical play, even if its primary thesis — that lawyers promote their own interests, not those of the warring spouses they represent — isn’t exactly the stuff of shattering revelation.
Fifty percent of U.S. marriages end in divorce, the film announces at the outset, followed by reams of data showing how marriage termination rates have skyrocketed ever since Ronald Reagan, then governor of California, signed the first U.S. no-fault divorce bill in 1969, making it easier than ever for couples to file for divorce, but not necessarily to complete the process. As explained by narrator Drew Pinsky (aka Dr. Drew), it’s a situation that has since been exploited by attorneys by piling on the paperwork and encouraging their clients to be as combative and unyielding as possible, knowing that a protracted court battle is the surest way to maximize billings. “People get as much justice as they can afford,” notes one observer early on.
Attorneys, however, aren’t even the ones who come off the worst in “Divorce Corp.” Along with co-writers Philip Sternberg, James Scurlock and Blake Harjes, Sorge depicts the family court itself as an untrustworthy, user-unfriendly system of so-called justice. Here, they claim, divorcing couples are placed at the mercy of judges who are frequently irresponsible in their judgment; intolerant of those who attempt to navigate the courts without counsel (there are no court-appointed attorneys); and prejudiced in favor of lawyers who ply them with campaign contributions. The result is a court that acts not just as mediator but marketeer, conspiring to drag out the process and drain claimants’ assets in order to pay legal fees that will then, after a fashion, wind up in the judges’ pockets.
Even if that sounds a touch conspiratorial, it’s not all that hard to believe the idea of an accountability-free system rigged to make the proceedings as sticky and expensive as possible. That so many of the film’s interview subjects are family-court officers themselves (among them celebrity attorney Gloria Allred and “Divorce Court” judge Lynn Toler) lends a certain credence to their sharp if repetitive arguments, and it’s easy enough to follow the documentary’s logic as it rails against the horrors of everything from false domestic-violence accusations to excessively high alimony and child support payments. Child custody battles, of course, take divorce to new levels of messiness and hostility, especially given the wildly inconsistent judicial standards for what is in “the best interests of the child.”
“Divorce Corp.” is reasonably cogent when it comes to explaining divorce-court terminology and statistics, even if it comes up somewhat short in terms of actual facts and figures. The filmmakers are far less successful when they start dragging in outrageous examples of official misconduct, whether it’s a child-custody evaluator who was publicly shamed for posting explicit online photos of himself in gay fetish gear, or a judge caught abusing his own child on video. Far from spinning these isolated incidents into a persuasive argument, the film instead seems as sleazy and opportunistic as its designated villains. Even the firsthand accounts from divorced parents, giving teary-eyed testimony about having lost custody of their kids to their rotten ex-spouses, prompt a skeptical response, given that the film is essentially re-trying their cases in the court of viewer opinion.
By way of positive contrast, the filmmakers frequently interview divorcees and legal officials from Scandinavia, where the end of a marriage is an altogether more peaceful, reasonable and economical affair; not since Michael Moore’s “Sicko” extolled the virtues of French health care has a documentary tried so hard to stir American envy at the superior European way of doing things. It’s a point that inadvertently cuts to the core of what’s wrong with “Divorce Corp.,” which encourages a strictly practical-minded, unexamined fantasy about a world where a union can be ended as quickly, cheaply and conveniently as possible. No one would argue that an expensive, acrimonious divorce is a good thing, and yet the inverse has its perils, too, in a society that takes its most important institution far too lightly; it’s hard to swallow complaints about the incredible hassle and expense of divorce from a film that hasn’t begun to grasp the value of marriage to begin with.