OK, was that the worst thing you've ever seen? The problem is that the young-man-at-the-crossroads-of-his-life story can be as soppy as Alberto Gonzales during Senate questioning.
It's a problem that every filmmaker faces when trying to be emotional: How can I touch my audience without bad-touching them where their bathing suits cover? Writer/director Jon Kasdan (son of Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Empire Strikes Back screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, who executive produced this film) faces that problem in In the Land of Women, a story whose plot seems to be a remix of a half-dozen Lifetime TV movies.
Carter Webb (Adam Brody) is a young screenwriter in Los Angeles. When his beautiful and famous girlfriend dumps him so she can spend more time appearing in ads for The Gap, he decides to move to suburban Michigan to live with his ailing grandmother. While there, he befriends Sarah Hardwicke (Meg Ryan), a romantically unsatisfied housewife. But! Their friendship is bittersweet, because Hardwicke has just learned she has breast cancer, and may not be long for this world.
If this movie just added in a kid trapped in a well, it would make The Little Match Girl look like Die Hard.
So the story does, indeed, suck. But Kasdan, in spite of his inability to come up with a plot that doesn't crib from Hallmark Hall of Fame's direct-to-DVD slushpile, is actually wicked good at writing zippy comedy lines.
Unfortunately, he also writes drippy dialogue like, "I just want to look back on my life and not wonder what parts of it belonged to me." Given a choice between spending a week in Dick Cheney's butt and listening to 90 minutes of that kind of dialogue, I'd invade Iran.
However, In the Land of Women is actually very watchable, because the sappy drip drip drip of that kind of pap is often a setup for some zingingly funny bit that's strangely not out of place in the mushy marshmallow of this film.
Brody is everything a sap film could want: He's unthreateningly handsome and mopey-eyed, and his butt has B-list star quality. Ryan is awful, but at least she's finally given up on trying to look like a teenager and has instead allowed her collagen-injected trout lips to droop lazily into her monologues about life and love and middle age. Also, every time she's on screen, an emo jangle pop song plays, because in modern cinema, emo=feelings.
While Brody and Ryan are boo-hoo-hooing, the underrated Clark Gregg (The Spanish Prisoner) and no-longer-a-child-star Kristen Stewart (Panic Room) play secondary roles with the kind of talent usually reserved for films by directors whose fathers didn't give them passcards into fame.
Stewart is surprisingly decent, playing a teenager with a combination of ticks and stutters and social awkwardness. This is a refreshing change from the usual Hollywood fare of slang-laden one-liners and pie-mating.
She also has the body of a stick figure, but like the prettiest stick figure ever. It's nice that while so many Americans are suffering from obesity, Hollywood films are still willing to pay actresses to live on super-healthy starvation-level diets.
Most importantly, she manages to somehow work Jon Kasdan's feelings-dialogue so it doesn't sound like Celine Dion reciting Rod McKuen. This is a neat trick, because Kasdan's dramatic material all revolves around people just saying exactly what they're feeling at that moment. But because Stewart turns up the teenage confusion, her lines actually make sense.
Stewart's fairly genuine take on adolescence is balanced by a horrifying performance by Makenzie Vega as The Precocious Little Sister. She's like a female Gary Coleman, and every time she spoke, I expected her to look into the camera and nod knowingly.
The strangest thing about In the Land of Women, though, is that in spite of the fact that most of its salient characteristics are characteristically awful, it's not a bad movie. And this is young Kasdan's first outing, so if he can learn to play to his strengths, he might turn out to be a decent filmmaker. In fact, seeing how well he did kind of makes me want to executive produce my son's first feature.