by Mel Valentin
A comedy-drama centered on a young writer going through a minor personal and professional crisis, "In the Land of Women," Jonathan (son of Lawrence) Kasdanís debut film, shows all the signs of a first-time filmmaker unsure of himself and the story he wanted to tell. Structured around a physical and emotional journey, "In the Land of Women" will more than likely remind moviegoers of 2004ís "Garden State," Zach Braffís comedy-drama that covered similar terrain (e.g., clueless adults, a dead-end or floundering career, life-lesson imparting women, emotional beats structured around pop songs, and a lead character trying to make sense of it all). Unfortunately, "In the Land of Women" has little of the offbeat humor, eccentric characters, or songs-to-story-structure that "Garden State" did.Carter Webb (Adam Brody), an L.A. based screenwriter (he writes soft porn), gets dumped, dumped hard by his actress girlfriend, Sofia BuŮuel (Elena Anaya). Despondent over the end of the relationship, uncertain about his future as a writer, Carter volunteers to take care of his elderly grandmother, Phyllis (Olympia Dukakis), in Michigan. The trip back east is less about spending time with his grandmother, whom Carter hasn't seen in years, and working on a long-dormant project about his experiences growing up in West L.A. (high school, specifically).
"More like "In the Land of Self-Obsessed Writers"."
In Michigan, Phyllis doesnít exactly respond to Carterís arrival with open arms (she slams the door in his face). Despite that inauspicious restart to their relationship, Carter moves in, taking an unused bedroom as his own. On a stroll, Sarah Hardwicke (Meg Ryan), his grandmotherís neighbor, as she walks her dog. On the surface, Sarah is a suburban mom with two daughters, Lucy (Kristen Stewart), a teenager, Paige (Makenzie Vega), a precocious teen, and a workaholic, absentee husband. Carter and Sarah become emotionally involved, but Carter also begins to spend time with Lucy and Paige (who has a crush on Carter).
In the Land of Women doesnít fit any identifiable genre or sub-genre, with one exception, the journey of self-discovery sub-genre. Think Zach Braffís Garden State, with the obligatory personal epiphanies that signal an upward trajectory into emotional maturity, often despite the protagonistís best efforts to prolong his responsibility-free adolescence well into his thirties. Carterís journey isnít back to some metaphorical or literal home, though, but rather to a way station, his grandmotherís house, where he can emotionally recover and kick start his writing career, all of which he dutifully does, but with a minimum of tension or dramatic conflict. Carter changes minimally while the Hardwickes grapple with life-or-death issues. Carter deals with life-and-life issues, meaning there's not much at stake for him outside of some minor personal growth.
Whatever the problems with In the Land of Women, and some, if not most of them can be traced to a first-time director working from his own underwritten, unfocused screenplay, itís hard not to wonder, though, how much of Kasdan's personal life and experiences he poured into the screenplay and how much of Carter Webb, a struggling L.A. writer, he based on himself. The whole first love, first love lost, get over the first love scenario also seems like Kasdan personally experienced recently. Trouble is, having your heart broken and recovering from said broken heart is as mundane as it is universal. It's also the slimmest of slim premises to hang an entire film on, especially when you can't cover it up through the usual romantic comedy conventions that are usually associated with this kind of scenario.
Story aside, Adam Brody (the late, lamented The O.C.) turns in a credible performance as the befuddled, muddled Carter. Brody shows a surprising amount of range during the early breakup scene and uses the halting, introspective persona he honed on the The O.C. to good effect. Meg Ryan (Youíve Got Mail, When Harry Met Sally) gets to emote credibly in several confessional scenes, as does Kristen Stewart (The Messengers, The Panic Room). Olympia Dukakis phones in the crotchety, bitter grandmother character (a character she seems to specialize in), but some of the blame for her ill-judged performance has to go to Jon Kasdan, both for underwriting her role and unsure direction that gave Dukakis way too much leeway during her scenes, some of which could have been trimmed or eliminated altogether.As a director, Kasdan shows promise, although he needs to get a better grip on pacing (e.g., when to end or open scenes), scene transitions. As a writer, however, Kasdan still has much to learn about writing compelling characters facing equally compelling dilemmas and/or problems. He also needs to develop a better sense of where he ultimately wants to take his stories and what themes he wants to explore in any depth. Here, it seems Kasdan had the simplest of themes to impart to his audience, e.g. live your life to the fullest, follow your creative muse, and only good things will follow. Hopefully, Kasdan will see and experience more before venturing back to his computer. Either that or he can try his hand at directing another writer's work (a literary adaptation is a distinct possibility).
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originally posted: 04/20/07 17:40:11