Thursday, April 19, 2007

In the Land of Women

IN THE LAND OF WOMEN (Jon Kasdan, 2007)

Carter Webb (Adam Brody) is down in the dumps. His actress girlfriend Sofia (Elena Anaya) has broken up with him. His job writing softcore porn is keeping Carter from working on the screenplay about high school that's been percolating for years. The aimless 26-year-old decides to get away from it all by going to Michigan to care for his delusional grandmother Phyllis (Olympia Dukakis).

IN THE LAND OF WOMEN drops Carter across the street from the Hardwicke family. Sarah (Meg Ryan) is wrestling with recently diagnosed breast cancer and knowledge of her husband's affair. Oldest daughter Lucy (Kristen Stewart), an artist fond of vintage rock tees, is angry at her mom and confused about how to handle the high school quarterback she's sort of dating.

Sarah takes a shine to the young man with the appearance of a wounded puppy. They have meaningful conversations while walking her dog, but Sarah resists telling Carter about her cancer. She wants to help him regain his self-esteem and encourages Lucy to ask him to the movies as a friendly gesture. Carter's confused relationships with the Hardwicke women throws them all for a loop in the midst of the other chaos they're enduring.

Writer-director Jon Kasdan's attempt at character-based dramedy manages some good scenes, but as a whole IN THE LAND OF WOMEN feels incomplete and inauthentic. Scenes end with fades to white and skip forward days. The passage of time is unimportant since nothing appears to change. Kasdan's passive characters sit around waiting for a bolt of lightning to strike them. It's probably indicative of how most of us are, but in execution it comes across as though the first-time director didn't have specific ideas about what to do with these people. The characters are in pain and will sort of muddle through it together more by accident than any shared wisdom.

The strained attempts at edginess--Carter's occupation and the romantic tension with mother and daughter--belong in a different film. If these aspects were better developed, maybe they'd be believable. Still, what is the likelihood that Sarah would be foisting Lucy on Carter one minute and bristling about a kiss the next? Kind of your fault, isn't it, mom? If Lucy were a few years older--a junior in college instead of an adolescent--the subplot would add up. Sarah is fighting feelings of her own inadequacies because her spouse cheats on her and she has undergone a mastectomy. She wants to live through her daughter but is jealous all the same. Having Lucy be in high school introduces an unsavory element that IN THE LAND OF WOMEN isn't prepared to handle or portray convincingly.

Carter, the mopey child of privilege, doesn't exactly foster sympathy. The guy can bail on his job without any noticeable repercussions and has women of all ages throwing themselves at him. He didn't get what he envisions as the classic John Hughes high school experience and regrets it close to ten years later. Rough life, isn't it? Carter doesn't have to be likeable or relatable--truth be told, Brody plays him like an OK guy--but it's hard to feel much for him when his problems are minor compared to everyone else in the film.

IN THE LAND OF WOMEN'S shortcomings are more apparent upon reflection than while it unspools. Kasdan's TV pacing, some funny lines, and agreeable performances keep things moving even when the story doesn't advance. Ryan lands one of her most appealing parts in years. It's too bad that Sarah is half conceived at best and the botox injections and/or plastic surgery the actress has subjected herself to aren't yielding any favors.

A primary criticism of Lawrence Kasdan's films are that he grants undue attention and affection on the problems of the self-absorbed upper middle class. Unfortunately for his son Jon, he borrows his father's weakness for his debut feature.

Grade: C

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