In a world where Lake Bell has already written, directed and starred in the spirited, iconoclastic charmer “In A World…,” “I Do… Until I Don’t” pushes the multitalented actress’ promising filmmaking career in the wrong direction with a regressive and uneven effort that can’t decide whether to be cynical or sentimental.
Assembling a game cast of collaborators including Ed Helms, Mary Steenburgen and Amber Heard, Bell attempts to subvert new-relationship conventions for a meditation on the merits of longtime commitment, in the process overworking “he/she drives me crazy but I love him/her anyway” clichés without producing much in the way of insight, storytelling or even the effervescent humor that is fast becoming her trademark.
Bell, who wrote, directed, produced and stars in the film, plays Alice, a clerk in her husband Noah’s (Helms) store for window treatments. Halfheartedly trying to get pregnant as a salve for the growing distance between her and Noah, Alice envies the artistic freedoms enjoyed by her hippie sister Fanny (Heard), if not also Fanny’s open relationship with her partner Zander (Wyatt Cenac).
After discovering that a documentary filmmaker she idolizes, Vivian Prudeck (Dolly Wells), is planning a film about what she considers are the institution of marriage’s many failures, Alice begs to volunteer as one of the couples, with the hopes of revitalizing her and Noah’s relationship and validating her own failed creative ambitions, if only by proxy.
Unfortunately, Alice soon gets more than she bargains for when she discovers that Vivian has recruited Fanny and Zander for the project as well, and is only too willing to manipulate her subjects in order to prove that long-term commitment is unsustainable. In the meantime, Vivian’s film forces Alice and Noah to cross paths with Cybil (Steenburgen) and Harvey (Paul Reiser), a bickering couple whose contentious interactions seem likely to prove Vivian’s theory correct — and without much encouragement from the documentarian at all.
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Where “In A World…” felt intimate and focused, delightfully dysfunctional but relentlessly hopeful, “I Do” is noisy and meandering, unsure if it wants to focus on Vivian’s misanthropic documentary or the neurotic people whose lives she’s willing to ruin in the name of confirmation bias. Unsurprisingly, there’s a divorce in Vivian’s recent past fueling her vendetta against marriage, but between Bell’s characterization and Wells’ performance in the role, there’s scarcely enough humanity to tolerate her on screen, much less muster an ounce of sympathy.
At the same time, Bell’s introduction of the various couples at their most obnoxious and insufferable — both to each other and to the audience — works against her later efforts to walk back, if not abandon, their shortcomings, as well as the problems their relationships will most certainly still have after they’ve temporarily remembered they did once love each other deeply.
The issue is not that the film fails to “repair” these three marriages, or to showcase some sort of profound personal growth in these individuals; for a movie that seems sincerely curious about what makes healthy relationships work, it taps only into their most familiar problems, and then relies on cute, superficial solutions to them. It’s not without significance that Vivian’s documentary, determined to expose weaknesses in marriages, only reinforces their strengths, but Bell’s script seldom uses the documentarian’s lens as a sincere mirror for relationship issues that are later exposed or discussed, and then later forgets her for large chunks of its running time.
Moreover, Bell directs virtually every scene involving more than one character like it’s a Robert Altman-style free-for-all, allowing the characters to ramble and bicker over one another without focus, at equally shrill volume, and seldom to a meaningful end.
As an actress, Bell typically brings a luminousness even to the most frivolous best friend/would-be girlfriend roles (“Over Her Dead Body,” “No Strings Attached,” “Million Dollar Arm”), but here she plays Alice as relentlessly neurotic and yet maddeningly naive, an artsy dope somehow terrified of whatever knowledge might result from her own curiosity.
Helms, meanwhile, manages to indulge in Noah’s well-intentioned obliviousness and still find the character’s likability, perhaps a byproduct of being saddled with so many feckless hubby roles in the past. And Heard and especially Cenac skillfully play with, and then subvert, the automatic punchlines of their bohemian couplehood, quietly but inevitably recognizing even to themselves that people claim to be in open relationships “for the bragging rights.”
Even as Wells goes all-in on Vivian’s bitter self-absorption — an admirable choice if not a successful one — Steenburgen and Reiser mostly dig themselves out the hole they’re put in at the beginning of the film, rebuilding Cybil and Harvey’s cratering relationship via small, knowing gestures and the kind of understanding of and sensitivity for another person with whom you share years of ups and downs. It’s in these subtleties that Bell’s gifts as a storyteller are most evident, circumventing broad conventions and even broader gags (like a handjob in a massage parlor gone disastrously wrong) for tender, recognizable humanity.
In which case, if “I Do… Until I Don’t” is a movie about entrenched behaviors and breaking those cycles to make new discoveries about one’s relationship and one’s partner, let’s hope the muddled result is not a pattern that Lake Bell settles into as a filmmaker. She’s too talented in front of the camera to have to hack away at characters like this one, but especially too promising behind it to write them for herself.