In the Land of Women / Dustin Rowles
Film Reviews | April 20, 2007 | Comments ()
This totally sucks, because no one is going to believe me. You’re all going to read this review, assume that I’m deluded, crazy, plain dumb, or worse — that the valley girl has invaded my soul and that I spend my days pining away over the cancellation of “The O.C.” You’re going to shake your head, snicker, and wonder what the fuck happened to Pajiba. But damn it, In the Land of Women is not the movie you think it is. It is not the teenage romantic comedy depicted in the previews; it’s not a Hughesian version of The Graduate, and it’s not a Braffian travesty that skates by on nubile flesh and a hipster soundtrack.
Believe it or not, it’s an adult drama that just happens to feature Adam Brody, Kristen Stewart, and Meg Ryan, whose reputations are severely misleading when it comes to marketing this film. The intended audience will hate it, because it’s not a big-screen version of “The O.C.,” and the audience that might enjoy it will never see it, because they’ll think it’s a big-screen version of “The O.C.” But trust me, it is the perfect antidote to Garden State quirkiness — a quiet, subtle film about relationships that relies not on well-screaming melodramatics and The Shins but on simple gestures, knowing looks, and atmosphere and mood. And Brody will absolutely stun you — I never knew anything existed beneath the Seth Cohen wisecracks and the pathetic infatuation with Summer Roberts, but the guy can actually turn in a solid, weirdly relatable performance. Granted, he’s no Ryan Gosling, but Adam Brody can act freakin’ circles around Zach Braff.
Not that In the Land of Women is a great film. Not by any stretch. In fact, there’s not a whole helluva lot of substance to it — the writing is Lifetime-for-Men at best, mostly what you’d expect from the debut effort of 27-year-old Jon Kasdan (son of Lawrence, brother of Jake). It’s a 2 a.m.-phone-call kind of film — the sort of epiphanic dialogue that might sound deep and meaningful under the spell of tipsy insomnia but that sounds pedestrian and platitudinous in the light of day — like love letters, or post-last-call emails you might have written early in a relationship, only to reread them three years later and wonder how in God’s name you convinced her to fall in love with you. But what Kasdan’s film lacks in substance, it more than makes up for in tone and texture.
Indeed, I don’t think I’ve had a similar movie-going experience since Beautiful Girls, 10 years ago — an empty mess of a script that nevertheless succeeded on its aura and Ted Demme’s deft direction, not to mention the spot-on casting. Beautiful Girls, in fact, is a apt comparison here, because Adam Brody’s character, Carter Webb, reminded me a bit of a 30-year-old male version of Natalie Portman’s Marty: confident and charming when dealing with other people’s problems, but a bit of a neurotic, ingratiating mess when dealing with his own. Carter is a writer whose model/actress girlfriend dumps him over coffee. In an effort to escape his problems, he moves to suburban Michigan to take care of his ailing grandmother (Olympia Dukakis in a scene-stealing role), whose impending death seems more a fit of her imagination than actual ill health.
There, he meets Sarah Hardwicke (Ryan) and her daughter Lucy (Stewart), who live across the street. Over a period of weeks, he becomes a confidante to both. Sarah has been diagnosed with cancer, and her husband is having an affair, while Lucy (a teenager who wears Bob Dylan, Def Leppard, and Genesis t-shirts(!)) has a strained relationship with her mother and difficulties with high-school dating (and don’t let the kiss between Brody and Stewart in the trailers fool you; it’s not what it looks like). Admittedly, Meg Ryan’s botched plastic surgery is distracting for a while, but it ultimately works for her character — a suburban housewife who feels insecure in her own skin, the type of person who might seek plastic surgery to create an illusion about herself. (And, in a way, it’s also heartbreaking to see — I mean, c’mon. Meg Ryan — the non-sexually cute epitome of romantic comedies for 15 years, and now she looks like a catfish crossed with a 45-year-old Angelina Jolie. If that doesn’t break your heart a little, I don’t know what would.) And there is a lot of honesty in the part that Kasdan — who underwent chemo and radiation as a teenager for Hodgkin’s disease — gives to Ryan, who turns in her best performance in, I dunno, God knows when.
And yes, in a way, Lucy develops a crush on Carter, while Carter develops an unspecified, unexplainable affection for Sarah, which is reciprocated to some extent. And Carter’s heartbreak and anguish makes him the ideal person for the troubled women to form solidarity around. Though the movie isn’t really about that, either. It’s about moments, and conversations, and about talking about one’s feelings during walks or over coffee or late at night while smoking a cigarette and the sort of relationships that flow out of that — think a less successful version of Before Sunrise set in suburban Michigan, or the sort of film Cameron Crowe might make if he were 20 years old today and not singularly obsessed with showing off his iPod (and if you don’t like Before Sunrise or Cameron Crowe, there is no hope for you here). Though Kasdan, too, has a sharp ear for tone-setting music — really, where else are you going to see a movie that features Bruce Springsteen, Neil Finn, and the absolutely coolest unironic use of Huey Lewis and the News? It’s a great soundtrack — effective, but never overbearing.
Not that any of you will ever see In the Land of Women, because none of you will believe me. So, go ahead, shake your head. Scoff. Laugh it up. But in two years’ time, when Jonathan Kasdan has made a much better, more assured film with a similar emotional texture, you may revisit In the Land of Women on late-night HBO, and you’ll see then that — but for a few touching moments — while this movie isn’t that good, all the elements are there for the makings someday of a truly great film. And who knows? Maybe Adam Brody will even be in it.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He lives with his wife in Ithaca, New York. You may email him, or leave a comment below.