Casey Brodsky (Barrymore), the nine-year-old daughter of a famous director and a bestselling novelist, decides to divorce her neglectful, self-absorbed parents, citing irreconcilable differences. Most of the film is told in flashback as Casey and her parents, Albert Brodsky (O'Neal) and Lucy van Patten Brodsky (Long), describe to the judge how Albert and Lucy fell in love, got married, and then split up, and how their relationship with their daughter deteriorated to the point where Casey would want a divorce.
The film features a then-unknown Sharon Stone in a supporting role.
This Movie provides examples of:
- Adults Are Useless: Albert and Lucy are so wrapped up in their own problems, they know absolutely nothing about their daughter's life and are completely taken by surprise when she files for emancipation.
- Also, one of the women Lucy meets at a Hollywood party years earlier tells her that she has kids, but is "not into parenting right now."
- And Starring: "And introducing Sharon Stone."
- Box Office Bomb: In-universe example. According to Casey, Atlanta lost more money than any other movie in history.
- Call-Back: When Lucy drops Casey off for Albert and Blake's Christmas party, Albert raps on Lucy's car window and tries to repeat the first words he said to her ("Hi! Say, I was wondering, could you give me a lift into St. Louis or any town that's got an airport?"), but she cuts him off with "That's not funny."
- Calling the Old Man Out: Casey telling her parents at her emancipation trial about how that even if they hate each other, they should at least treat each other with respect. She also told them that they treated her like a pet that they pay attention to only once in a while.
- Cheating with the Milkman: Albert's girlfriend Blake Chandler eventually leaves him for the limo driver.
- Creator Killer: In-universe example. Atlanta destroys Albert's career and reputation and forces him to file for bankruptcy.
- Custody Battle: The climax of the film is Casey deciding to divorce her neglectful parents, who fight it in court but lose.
- Decoy Protagonist: Casey spends most of the film as a side character. The focus is on her parents, especially Albert.
- Defiled Forever: Bink wanted Lucy to be a virgin. Once she sleeps with Albert, she knows he'll never want her again.
- Development Hell: In-universe example. David Kessler has worked on An American Romance for thirty-five years by the time he gives it to Albert to direct. At one point he tried to get it made with Bogie and Bacall.
- Doesn't Know Their Own Child: While trying to persuade Casey not to file for emancipation, Lucy says, "You're only eight years old!" Casey answers, "I'm nine."
- Dude, Where's My Respect?: Albert and Lucy's relationship starts to fall apart partly because Lucy feels she isn't getting enough credit for the success of An American Romance. Lucy co-wrote the script and was so important to Albert's writing process that he could barely even start it without her, but Albert becomes a big name in Hollywood while Lucy remains unknown.
- Emancipated Child: Casey actually tells her lawyer, "I want to divorce my parents."
- Encyclopaedic Knowledge: Albert is so knowledgeable about old movies, he's able to identify a movie based on the name of one actor and a vague description of another.
- Fourth-Date Marriage: Albert and Lucy knew each other for four days before getting married.
- Glasses Pull: Albert removes his sunglasses while trying to convince Casey not to become emancipated.
- Gold Digger: Blake hooks up with Albert when he hits it big and promptly dumps him when his money and career dry up.
- Good Adultery, Bad Adultery: Lucy cheating on her fiancé Bink with Albert: good. Albert cheating on Lucy with Blake: bad.
- Heartbreak and Ice Cream: After the divorce, Lucy just started eating ice cream and junk food. Her pantries are full of cake icing.
- Hourglass Plot: After Albert divorces Lucy, he lives in a mansion with Blake while Lucy lives in poverty. Later, after Albert's career goes downhill and Lucy becomes a bestselling novelist, Lucy buys Albert's mansion while Albert moves into a motel.
- Interrupted Intimacy: Blake walks in on Albert and Lucy just as they're about to have sex for the first time in weeks.
- Kick the Dog: Blake's treatment of her mother Dottie while filming Atlanta. She orders her to get her a drink, then screams at her when it isn't cold enough.
- Laser-Guided Karma: Albert cheats on Lucy with Blake, who promptly cheats on him.
- Love Makes You Uncreative: Albert was a promising director until Blake, his second wife, convinced him to put all his money into creating a musical remake of Gone with the Wind. It bombed.
- Married to the Job: After the success of An American Romance, Albert Brodsky spends a lot of time away from his wife and daughter.
- May–December Romance: An American Romance, the movie that makes Albert famous, is about an older man who falls in love with a young woman who gives him something to live for.
- Meet Cute: Albert first meets Lucy while he is hitchhiking across the country. She drives through a puddle and splatters him with mud.
- The Mistress: Kessler's wife of thirty-five years is always traveling, allowing him to openly live with his much-younger girlfriend.
- The Muse: Albert becomes infatuated with Blake after he casts her as the lead in his movie Gabrielle.
- Never My Fault: At the divorce trial, both parents blame each other for the situation. Albert blames Lucy for being insensitive and being too busy for Casey, while Lucy blames Albert for abandoning them.
- Throughout the movie, Albert denies responsibility for things that are at least partly his fault, such as Bink's car being stolen, Lucy not getting any credit for her work on An American Romance, and the distance between them while filming Gabrielle.
- No Celebrities Were Harmed: Albert and Lucy are loosely based on Peter Bogdanovich and Polly Platt, whose marriage fell apart when Bogdanovich took up with his lead actress from The Last Picture Show, Cybill Shepherd.
- Ominous Legal Phrase Title: Based on one possible grounds for divorce.
- Painful Rhyme: The song Blake sings in Atlanta is full of these.This Civil War ain't gonna get me down
I'm taking my act to a brand-new town
This belle got burned in Old Atlanta
I'm gonna find myself a brand-new Santa!
- Parental Obliviousness: Lucy has no idea where Casey is most of the time. She is surprised to hear that she spends most of her time at Maria's house, and has to be told at the emancipation trial that Casey is nine and not eight.
- Parental Substitute: Maria the housekeeper is this for Casey. She becomes her legal guardian at the end of the movie.
- Parents as People
- Pinball Protagonist: Casey, up until the end of the last flashback when she finally decides she's had enough. Justified, as she is a child who has no say in how she's raised.
- The Precious, Precious Car: Lucy's original fiancé Bink's beloved sports car, which Bink worked nine summers to afford, and which Lucy is driving across the country when she meets Albert because she's the only person he trusts with it. Naturally, it gets stolen while she's dancing with Albert.
- Psychological Projection: At the divorce trial, Lucy tells Casey, "I know why you want to divorce your father. I know you never got over his abandoning us." Casey replies, "No, Mom, you never got over his abandoning us."
- Punctuated! For! Emphasis!: While filming Atlanta:Blake: Amanda never has anything funny to say! Nobody in this movie ever has anything funny to say!
Albert: That's. Because. It's not. A comedy.
- Roadside Wave: Lucy does this to Albert when they first meet.
- So Bad, It's Good: In-universe example. Atlanta, the movie Albert creates so Blake can fulfill her middle-school dream of playing Scarlett O'Hara, certainly looks like this.
- Taking the Kids: After Lucy realizes Albert has been cheating on her, she packs her bags and drives away with Casey. They spend the night in her car.
- Their First Time: When they first have sex, Lucy is a virgin and Albert is implied to be.
- Troubled Production: In-universe example. Blake's diva-ish behavior and Albert's obsessive attention to detail cause the budget of Atlanta to balloon. At one point Albert pays hundreds of extras to do nothing for two days while he waits for the perfect sunset; when the moment finally comes, Blake interrupts the scene to complain about her lines and demand a soda, then gets in an argument with Albert in front of the crew. By the time she's done, the sunset is over.
- Write Who You Know: In-universe example. Lucy's bestselling novel He Said It Was Going To Be Forever is a barely-fictionalized account of her and Albert's relationship and divorce.