May 08, 2007

In the Land of Women

In the Land of Women, written and directed by the son of famous writer/director Lawrence Kasdan, is a very specific movie made for a very specific sort of person. Though it is both romantic and a comedic, it never really develops into a romantic comedy. The characters examine the world more deeply than those around them, but are destined to be less satisfied with what they find in it. I surround myself with people like them and laugh at the things they find funny. Your mileage may vary.

Adam Brody plays Carter Webb, a twentysomething drifter who maintains his lifestyle scripting "premium softcore porn" in Los Angeles. A devastating break-up with Sofia Buñuel — a famous model-actress that is adored by seemingly everyone — inspires him to flee the city to watch over his flighty grandmother in suburban Michigan. Carter addresses the world with a leisurely calm; he lets events and revelations soak in at their own pace, reacting with shock or surprised only when absolutely warranted.

Otherwise, every interaction with grandmother Phyllis (Olympia Dukakis in Cloris Leachman territory) would consist entirely of shock and surprise. On the razor's edge between perfect clarity and total dementia, Phyllis has convinced herself that she is on the verge of death even though there is nothing medically wrong with her. The film doesn't treat her with any reverence. In mercilessly poking fun at all the baggage that comes with getting old, I was brought much closer to all of the old people I have known and loved over my twenty young years on this planet. Phyllis is old, and probably a bit crazy, but she isn't stupid or frail. She's survived long enough to be the toughest old broad of the bunch, and her insights — both shallow and profound — are informed by all her years of plodding on through.

It isn't until Carter meets the Meg Ryan's M.I.L.F. next door that he makes a real human connection. Sarah Hardwicke is also observes the world with patient ardour. But nearly two decades further along, her incredulity has evolved into a quiet desperation for a life not lived. Her marriage is antiseptic, and she hasn't known her eldest daughter in years. For her joy comes only in flashes between long stretches of living exactly as she is expected to. Sarah adores Carter for his passion and his future not yet lived. Carter adores Sarah for her insight and her bravery. Over walks with the dog and awkward trips to the supermarket, they delight in sharing their lives with someone who knows what to listen for.

In a daring rebuff of contemporary social mores, Carter meets Sarah's distant daughter Lucy over a cigarette. Kristen Stewart, whose career has largely languished in an awkward mix of horror movies and children's films since her promising introduction as Jodie Foster's androgynous daughter in Panic Room finally returns to work worthy of her talent. Though Lucy is smart, pretty and talented, Stewart embodies her with a constant clenched-up rigidity that gives her insecurities credibility. Filled with a devastating mix of shame and resentment, Lucy is so afraid of making her mother's mistakes that she's unable to live at all. As intense as Carter is mild, she obsesses over shallow high school dilemmas and life-altering crises with the same self-conscious eloquence. Lucy adores Carter because she senses that he is the kind of man her mother should have married. Carter adores Lucy because she could never become her mother.

Along for the ride is Paige, Lucy's preteen sister and the only uncomplicated source of joy in Sarah's world. She is as abnormally sane as Phyllis is crazy, as seemingly adult as Phyllis is child-like. Together, the oldest and youngest characters occupy the margins of the events with a startling directness. Both have big, real worries and address them with matter-of-fact sincerity.

As Carter and these four astounding women co-exist, important things happen and almost happen. Major events and minor ones. Some hilarious, some devastating, and others unsettlingly melancholy. All swell with an unspoken, uncalculated sort of love. When the film asks us to laugh at horrible things, they're the kind of undeniable truths that won't benefit from crying. These are witty, introspective characters who are too romantic and nakedly human to be anything but earnest. Those are the kind of people I'm drawn to, so the film spoke to me in a surprisingly personal way. If you don't resonate with what I've described, proceed with caution. (***½)

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