If you want to make Judge Katie Herrell think you're a good neighbor, go ahead and send over the Keebler cookies and call them homemade, but don't send a fresh batch of cinematic ennui.
"Get ready to fall."
Watching In the Land of Women feels like spending the afternoon at a country club that doesn't have a golf course, pool, tennis courts, or even a clubhouse. Instead there is cancer, adultery, death, and ennui (lots of ennui), surrounded by deep green vegetation and perfectly envisioned houses devoid of family happiness. The viewer is left exhausted and slightly depressed after an hour and a half of other people's problems.
Facts of the Case
Carter Webb (Adam Brody, The O.C.) is a twenty-something soft porn writer who after a breakup with his girlfriend decides to flee sunny Los Angeles for the suburbs of Michigan where his grandmother is convinced she's dying. Senile grammy lives next door to the cancer-stricken Sarah Hardwicke (Meg Ryan, City of Angels), her cheating husband, their precocious middle-schooler, and an angst-ridden teenager. An unlikely relationship evolves between Carter, Sarah, and her girls.
The commercials for In the Land of Women were false advertising. And the title encourages the deception. Billed, for the short time it was in theaters, as a love triangle of The Graduate variety, In the Land of Women is quite a bit darker and more sinister. Fueled by Sarah's unsmiling bout with cancer and her encouragement, then admonishment, as Carter hangs out with her oldest daughter Lucy (Kristen Stewart, The Panic Room), In the Land of Women is never about romance.
Instead the film is about unhappiness as a result of idleness, inactivity, and reservedness. Adam Brody—unbelievable both in appearance and attitude as a soft-porn writer—offers a languid performance and appears to be acting out his own personal unhappiness at having his one-time hit television show canceled rather than embodying a porn writer who wishes to write a high-school memoir about, wait for it, high school in L.A. While his interactions with mom and daughter are in a way touching and naively earnest, his acting in this film also lacks any real passion or emotion.
Sarah is downtrodden even before she learns she has breast cancer. An idle woman with a careless husband who is trying, in his brief scenes, to make amends, Sarah endlessly drags her feet around their suburban enclave. Intrigued by the appearance of a young man at her crotchety neighbor's, Sarah wanders over with store-bought domestic goodies, presented with a false flourish of fresh-from-the-oven charm. This contrived offering—and its appearance in films and movies—is a tired emblem of the "modern woman" trying to proclaim her neighborly and womanly goodness. Still, it is with such a clich éd icebreaker, that Sarah convinces Carter to drag his feet around the block with her and the relationships begin.
But their relationship isn't a roll around in the sheets, go out for clandestine meals sort of affair. It is meant to be a much deeper connection, forged on walks and letters and emotions, but instead it is portrayed as one rainy kiss and a lot of anger (on Sarah's part) and confusion (on Carter's part). In fact when Sarah insists Lucy take Carter out to the movie, Sarah becomes a co-conspirator in the decline of the rest of the film.
Lucy is a beautiful teenager who downplays her figure and looks by wearing grubby T-shirts and too-big jeans (which are splattered with angst-flung mural paint). Her little sister, Paige, played by Makenzie Vega, is a clear-faced, bright-eyed kid who can't wait to grow up but hasn't lost her innocence. Vega offers the best performance of the film, along the lines of Abigail Breslin in Little Miss Sunshine. Paige and Lucy both take Carter to dinner and a movie at the local mall and it is here that the rest of the movie is foreshadowed.
The suburban mall adventure lays the groundwork for a kiss between the eldest daughter and her mother's youth tonic; the unveiling of the daughter's issues with her own sexuality and her strained relationship with her mother; and the introduction of Lucy's soon-to-be boy toy. After the trip to the mall, the movie is engulfed by cancer, death, despair, and pain. It would be better for all the characters and the film, if they were forever freeze-framed in the food court.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The soundtrack does wonders for this film. Riffing off the slightly shadowy yet fervent scenery of the Hardwickes' neighborhood—an iconic yet inviting and oddly personalized and secluded-feeling piece of suburbia that reminded me of the happy neighborhood in The Father of the Bride series—the tunes of INXS, OK Go, and Stephen Trask offers In the Land of Women a shot of hipness and originality.
For the most part, the acting is well-done. The non-aging Meg Ryan has an unflinching presence on camera and oscillates between a scorned, bored housewife and a wizened yet still seductive older woman with ease. Kristin Stewart plays a self-conscious, budding, irked teenager who still has a lot of kid in her, which seems to correctly define her character.
Even the grandmother, played by Olympia Dukakis, with her tightly coiled hair and tendency to forget her pants is endearing, offering the greatest life lessons with the fewest lines.
In the Land of Women isn't a total wash, but it relies too much on other movies' themes to really gain any credit.
Guilty. Get ready. Pad the landing.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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