Directed by: Jonathan Kasdan
Starring: Adam Brody, Meg Ryan, Kristen Stewart, Olympia Dukakis, JoBeth Williams
Jonathan Kasdan’s debut as writer-director, In the Land of Women, is a considerably more serious attempt at filmmaking than brother Jake Kasdan’s 2001 attempt, Orange County—perhaps because father Lawrence Kasdan served as executive producer on this one. That—and a really bad case of Garden State (2004) wannabe and a dash of In Her Shoes (2005)—may be as much a curse as a blessing for In the Land of Women.
The problem is that Kasdan the younger tries too hard to emulate Kasdan the elder. Apart from borrowing from Garden State and In Her Shoes, there’s a strong sense of Big Chill Lite—made by someone with a much lamer record collection. Despite the fact that Lawrence Kasdan’s The Big Chill (1983) boasts what is perhaps Kevin Kostner’s finest performance, I can’t say I’ve ever really taken to it, but it does make exceptional use of its handpicked pop/rock/soul soundtrack. Lawrence’s son is less inspired in this regard, predictably flooding his soundtrack (usually at the beginning of a new scene) with undistinguished singer-songwriter efforts at every turn. He would do well to study the films of Wes Anderson (or even Edgar Wright’s current film Hot Fuzz) for tips on this kind of soundtrack—and get a better collection of music.
Now, having said that, I’ll also say that for all its problems, In the Land of Women isn’t a bad first effort. Yes, the writing is occasionally stilted, and the plot devices would serve well on the Lifetime Channel. Also, there’s the usual dose of self-deprecating self-portrait: Our hero, Carter Webb (Adam Brody), is the same age as the filmmaker and has a similarly privileged L.A. background, which may be taking “write about what you know” too far. All the same, the basic premise is certainly serviceable for its purposes.
The movie opens with Carter being dumped by his actress girlfriend (if not actress, then at least celebrity; what she does is rather unclear), Sofia Buñuel (Elena Anaya, Van Helsing), which sends him into a tailspin that he reasons he can fix by going to take care of his dotty grandmother (Olympia Dukakis) in Michigan. Since Grandma is clearly in the throes of movie-style dementia (in movie-style dementia, the sufferer is never worse than embarrassingly funny), Carter finds himself getting involved with the Hardwicke family across the street, especially with 17-year-old daughter Lucy (Kristen Stewart) and mother Sarah (Meg Ryan). The Hardwicke’s are a slightly dysfunctional lot (shocked, aren’t you?): Dad Nelson (Clark Gregg, Hoot) is having an affair, Sarah has cancer, Lucy can’t forgive something Mom did six years earlier nor decide whether to actually kiss her borderline jock boyfriend, and of course, there’s a precocious younger child, Paige (Makenzie Vega, Sin City), to balance things out. Toss in a boss waiting for rewrites on Carter’s latest soft-core porn screenplay and Carter’s worried mother (JoBeth Williams) threatening to show up, and you have the basic recipe.
In other words, it’s a very movie movie that follows a strict formula. But it’s a pleasant formula that works a good deal of the time on its sheer likeability. The main characters are affable, the setting is pleasant (the supposed Michigan neighborhood—played by a Vancouver neighborhood—is gorgeous enough to be a botanical garden), and the story has a kind of soothing clockwork familiarity. Kasdan is also smart enough to be aware of what he’s doing when he deliberately invokes the name of John Hughes while making—at least in part—his own John Hughes movie.
The central shortcoming—aside from the clunky use of the pap rock songs, the predictability and the often stilted dialogue—is that Kasdan overreaches himself. There’s just too much in the film, and he can’t keep track of it all. The thread involving Nelson’s affair gets lost somewhere along the way. The device of Dad not being there when Lucy needs his help and thus having Lucy shift her allegiance from Dad to Mom is not only unconvincing, it does exactly what it oughtn’t do: Rather than convey any sense of character growth on Lucy’s part, it merely shows her transferring the grudge from one parent to the other. Where Kasdan scores best is in getting strong performances from his cast, and that is no small accomplishment. Even if In the Land of Women isn’t the film it might have been, it still suggests that Kasdan is worth keeping an eye on. Rated PG-13 for sexual content, thematic elements and language.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke