Monday, May 7, 2007
In the Land of Women (Jon Kasdan, 2007) ***
Dir. Jon Kasdan
Starring Adam Brody, Meg Ryan, Kristen Stewart, Olympia Dukakis, Makenzie Vega
Now here comes a mainstream movie that has taken a beating by most critics and was mostly ignored by audiences everywhere. Yet this film (while certainly flawed) does so many things right and makes several refreshingly original choice that it becomes mind boggling to consider how duds like Blades of Glory and Disturbia have received much better press. It certainly makes sense, but is no less distressing, that the latter films would perform much better in the box office, but it would be nice if studios were encouraged to reach for some originality. This is a film that needed critical support to survive, but instead they were yukking it up at Will Ferrell's antics or pretending to be scared by Disturbia's lame slasher movie ending.
In the Land of Women is about Carter Webb (Adam Brody) a soft core porn writer who's just been dealt a devastating blow; the Hollywood superstar actress he had been dating broke up with him. In his grief, he decides to take a vacation, leaving the lights of Los Angeles to help take care of his ailing grandmother who lives in a quiet suburban neighborhood. While there, he develops a relationship with the family across the street, particularly Sarah Hardwicke (Meg Ryan) and her teenage daughter Lucy Hardwicke (Kristen Stewart). The story follows how these relationships affect the three characters involved.
The film comes from Jonathan Kasdan, son of Lawrence Kasdan, and it shares his father's focus on quiet character development. The premise sounds like something that could easily be turned into a wacky sex romp, but this is a mature film that takes time to develop its three leads. Kasdan has a rally nice touch for these soft moments, such as when Carter and Sarah take their daily walks, or when Carter and Lucy spend time on the football field. These moments work not only because the three leads have a very easy unforced chemistry between them, but also because Kasdan's observant screenplay does a good job capturing the way real people talk and interact.
Kasdan is not interested in letting a formula dictate the actions of his character. Other than a few moments in the third act, standard plot devices are not to be found in this movie. The relationships between the three leads develop in interesting and unpredictable ways. This is not a movie about which one Carter will get in the sack. It's not even about the trite romantic comedy cliche of who he will end up with happily ever after. Instead, the story explores how Carter's chance appearance makes all three characters reassess where they currently are in their lives.
As good as the film is developing its leads, the supporting characters are very poorly handled. Sarah's husband appears so infrequently that at first it was hard to tell if they were separated or not. His exclusion from much of the story cheapens the dramatic payoff of his character's revelation. Lucy has her own drama in the high school world and Kasdan never gets a chance to find a grasp on this section of the movie. Lucy's boyfriend is a typical jock but she seems to get along better with his best friend. Once again, the exclusion of these characters from most of the film hampers the eventual resolution of this subplot.
Also problematic is the treatment of Carter's grandmother. Portrayed by the great Olympia Dukakis, she is treated like a punch line throughout the movie. At one point, she answers the door without pants on, a scene that was played up in the few ads that were run for the film. Some of this was admittedly funny, but it doesn't really fit in with the rest of the film. Late in the film, when Kasdan asks us to care about the grandmother, it rings completely hollow and feels like a plot device more than anything else.
A film like this requires strong performances to carry it and that's we get here. Adam Brody gets away from The O.C. and shows he can play a character much different than hyper motor mouth Seth Cohen. He has perhaps the most difficult role, mostly reacting to the events around him, but sells it well and develops a nice chemistry with the other leads. Meg Ryan's performance remains refreshingly reserved even when events in the third act threaten to lead to overacting. However, the real revelation here is Kristen Stewart. In every single scene, you can sense a stunning screen presence threatening to break out and there always appears to be something going on behind those expressive eyes.
While In the Land of Women struggles a bit getting through its third act, its still a nice achievement for Kasdan's debut. He shows some promising filmmaking skill, especially the pacing. Despite the somewhat loose structure of his plot, the film never feels long. Actually the problems with subplots and supporting characters may be due to the short 97 minute running time. The film could have used a good extra 20 minutes and it would have been just fine. As is, this is simply a decent movie with some really strong moments between its three leads, and it should not be overlooked in favor of the more mundane studio fare.
Posted by Larry McGillicuddy at 1:55 AM