‘Year by the Sea’ Review: Female Empowerment Comedy Is Insufferably Twee

Karen Allen frolics and cavorts through an artificial celebration of finding yourself via travel and adventure

Last Updated: September 8, 2017 @ 10:46 AM

Even women will lose their man cards if they buy a ticket to “Year by the Sea,” a figurative and nearly retch-inducing celebration of the ovary based on a best-selling memoir by Joan Anderson.

As if completing a trilogy preceded by “Under the Tuscan Sun” and “Eat, Pray, Love,” writer-director Alexander Janko’s debut is about a woman who feels hemmed in by her daily grind and sets off solo to find herself. In this case, she leaves behind a stodgy husband who won’t even discuss her need for adventure. “Needs are a roof over your head and food on the table,” he says. “Period.”

So Joan (Karen Allen) decides to kiss Robin (Michael Cristofer) temporarily goodbye and head out to Cape Cod to rent a cottage — yes — by the sea. The impermanent status of their separation isn’t made clear until well into the film; he’s angry enough when she departs that it sure seems like a divorce is looming, and when she immediately loses her wedding ring upon arrival, her “oh no” might as well be “oh fiddlesticks!” for all the emotion Allen pours into Joan’s reaction.

Wackiness abounds. First, Joan goes ’round and ’round a traffic circle and then nearly hits someone, leaving you to wonder, “Can’t she f—ing drive?” There’s look-how-zany! music as she learns to row a boat, which is necessary to cross the lake between her cottage and civilization. (Of course no one teaches the new girl.) Joan struggles with her suitcase on the beachfront grounds and knocks stuff over, all for our merriment.

But the film really takes a dive when she meets a neighbor who’s also named Joan (Celia Imrie). Joan No. 2 is a free spirit who writes Joan No. 1 a poem (there’s that gag reflex), has her put on a makeshift sari so they can run into the sea, and advises Joan and her visiting friend, Liz (S. Epatha Merkerson), to carefully choose pieces of thread for their looms, for they will be making “a tapestry of our lives.”

Throughout most of these escapades is forced yet delirious laughter. (Meanwhile, anyone with knowledge of the English language will laugh only when Joan, who’s a writer, corrects a friend who asks, “Is that him?” “Is that he,” Joan says. Oof.)

Naturally, Joan finds herself opening up, taking risks, and having those adventures she so wanted. In this way, the film is not without merit. The setup is inarguably cliché. But isn’t travel, especially solo travel, all about learning and growing? It seems that many marriages would be saved if the unhappy party didn’t tell their partner to take a hike but instead took one themselves. As for Joan, she giddily pushes Robin to do activities outside his comfort zone when he visits. He needs more cajoling, but the seed’s planted. (Though he may never dance with her on an icy beach. After all, he has sense.)

The soundtrack of “Year by the Sea” is insufferably twee, with strummy folk songs cueing every emotion — that is, except when some misadventure calls for jaunty music, or a costumed New Year’s Day run calls for…circus music. Horribly, one scene in which Joan is learning how to clam with a handsome fisherman, is set to “I’m Into Something Good.” Do they end up chasing each other around the beach, laughing deliriously? You bet.

Into all happiness some sorrow must fall, and so it is for a few of our characters. The occasions are too abrupt to feel genuine, however, aside from a case of domestic abuse. For Janko to have kept that in amidst all the lunacy feels like a misstep, but not one greater the many missteps than had come before.