Nature may abhor a vacuum, but it seems lawyers also abhor arenas of life untouched by their professional advice or air-quote helpfulness, which goes a long way to helping explain the $50 billion a year cottage industry in contentious divorce. A back-stiffening look at this sprawling problem—somewhat unsurprisingly unique to the United States in terms of its cost—director Joe Sorge’s documentary Divorce Corp. makes a persuasive case for the reform of family law court, and in particular an attempted decoupling of money from issues regarding parental custody and visitation rights.
Narrated by Dr. Drew Pinsky, Divorce Corp. unfolds as a methodological case study, and a shrewd takedown of a legal system in which more money passes through family law court than all others combined. Using their increasingly dexterous talents to manipulate a system of at least partially manufactured dissent, lawyers have driven up the national average in divorce fees to a bewildering $50,000, which is more money than a lot of folks make in a year. Litigants, we’re told and shown, are little more than grist for the mill.
Certainly any divorce is painful, and shot through with all sorts of private and very personal difficulties, shortcomings (real or perceived), anger and shame. That is a universal truth. Using a variety of interview subjects, though, Sorge’s film shows both how the American system of marital separation and annulment incentivizes conflict and, even more damningly, how basic mechanisms of fairness and indeed certain Constitutional rights (trial by jury, having the right to a lawyer if you are unable to afford one) that exist in criminal and civil courts do not exist in family law.
Divorce Corp. traces the evolution of the divorce-as-business boom back to then-California governor Ronald Reagan’s introduction of a “no-fault” dissolution law in 1969, a concept which quickly spread to the overwhelming majority of other states. Divorces became easier to secure and less of a social stigma, but also more complicated in terms of how to divide assets. Following the money, then, big law firms—almost none of whom were interested in divorce in the 1950s through the ’70s—insinuated their way into the process.
The film sometimes fails to delve quite deep enough; when it segues into the touchy subject of child custody evaluation, it alights briefly upon the failings of the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality inventory, and the lack of formal training standards for such court-mandated professionals before bounding into more salacious anecdotal material, including stories of bribes and the take of Dr. Joseph Kenan, a California analyst with all sorts of explicit Facebook photos detailing a drug-fueled lifestyle of anonymous sex. In its home stretch, Divorce Corp. more rigorously compares the American system to that of Scandinavia , which has a comparable divorce rate but also has alimony limits and fixed monthly stipends for child rearing that remove the incentives for lengthy court battles surrounding custody.
Mostly, though, Divorce Corp. connects because has a deep bench of compelling and sympathetic interviewees from a wide variety of backgrounds. (The best character may be private investigator John Nazarian, an ex-cop who expresses disgust at the system while admitting to feeding his family off of the enterprise.) It also highlights in infuriating fashion the problems inherent in a system wherein attorneys in family court cannot be sued for libel, malicious prosecution or over-litigation, and jury-and-executioner judges who, dependent on campaign contributions for reelection, are not subject to conflict-of-interest oversight or review.
In an attempt to give his movie some stylistic pop, Sorge uses a number of placeholder reenactments in an attempt to dramatize some interviewee’s stories, and a couple of rudimentary animated segments to illustrate the difficulties involved in appealing a ruling or filing a motion against what might be a rogue judge. These are understandable if relatively uninspired choices. More effective is moody music, by composers Andy Sorge and Chris McClure, which underscores the undertow of an adversarial system glazed, in dispiritingly typical American fashion, with more needless antagonism.
Director: Joe Sorge
Writers: Joe Sorge, Philip Sternberg, James Scurlock, Blake Harjes
Narrated by: Dr. Drew Pinsky
Release Date: Jan. 10, 2014