“In a World …” was actress and writer Lake Bell’s feature debut, and it was smart, charming and enjoyable.
None of those descriptions apply to “I Do … Until I Don’t,” her sophomore effort. (What’s with the ellipses in the titles?) It’s a big disappointment, not least because of its talented cast – and Bell’s obvious talents as a filmmaker.
The film, a takedown of dishonest documentaries and academic fraud, follows the research of a woman named Vivian (Dolly Wells), whose failed marriage has led her to become a leader in the field of studying failed marriages. Marriage is dead, she posits, and thinks a seven-year contract with an option for renewal would be preferable to lifelong vows.
And she doesn’t sound too optimistic about that renewal. She’s the type of person who, when she meets someone, says, “I see by your wedding band you’re married or separated.” The marriage glass is always half empty in her world.
She wants to study and film the marriages of three couples. There’s Noah (Ed Helms) and Alice (Bell), who have been trying to have a baby but can’t. Alice’s hippie sister Fanny (Amber Heard) is in an open marriage with her husband, Zander (Wyatt Cenac), that may not be as open as it seems. Plus, Alice thinks Noah wants to have an affair with Fanny.
Finally there is Harvey (Paul Reiser) and Cybil (Mary Steenburgen), who simply can’t seem to stand each other. Cybil is so bitter and off-putting you can hardly endure it when she’s on screen. For his part, Harvey has taken up motorcycle riding.
Bell follows each couple, and there are some bright moments. Cenac is terrific when Zander is showing Vivian the ridiculous project he’s undertaken — restoring motorcycle sidecars. Is this how you make money, she asks? Yes, he says. Pause. “And my father runs a hedge fund.”
A brief scene between Bell and Reiser is quite good. But overall the movie wants its characters to get down and dirty while keeping them clean.
Vivian is obnoxious and dissatisfied with the amount of unhappiness on display, so she decides to ramp up the drama. “Maybe I just need a heavier hand,” she tells her assistant.
No, no you do not. And neither does Bell.
It’s a shame, because Bell’s use of the camera is consistently inventive, from the funeral that begins the movie onward. The visuals are often surprising, and help make the movie far more interesting than it otherwise might have been.
Bell also gets good performances from everyone. It’s what they’re asked to perform that sinks the movie. It takes some effort to make Mary Steenburgen unlikable, but Bell manages. And to her credit, Steenburgen is fully invested in acting like a harpy. That’s a Pyrrhic victory if ever there was one.
The story is predictable and, given the tone of the film throughout, too soft at the end. Vivian may be crazy, but she has the courage of her misguided convictions. Bell’s motives are far better, but she does not.
Bill Goodykoontz, USA TODAY Network
The Film Arcade presents a film written and directed by Lake Bell. Rated R (for sexual material and language). Running time: 106 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.