When Jon Kasdan becomes a successful writer-director (and this seems a fait accompli with those writin’-directin’ genes), he’s going to look back on In the Land of Women and wince – not because it’s bad, but because it is so painfully earnest. The tragicomic tale of struggling screenwriter Carter Webb (Adam Brody) – who flees Los Angeles for Michigan to decompress after his starlet girlfriend Sofia Buñuel* (Elena Anaya) abruptly dumps him – is admirably heartfelt and occasionally very funny, but it’s also unavoidably shallow in the way many young screenwriters’ works tend to be. And while the film will probably go over fabulously with teenage girls and mopey twentysomething males (as if there’s much of a difference), those who’ve passed into their thirties will likely shake their head and hope they didn’t come off quite as silly as Carter when they were his age.
The break-up that sends Carter skidding into self-absorption occurs in a bustling diner. As Sofia ineptly tries to cast the poor bastard off with a little compassion, her clumsy speech is interrupted by a group of starstruck young girls eager to get an autograph. That this is meant to exacerbate Carter’s misery only underscores the tenuousness of their relationship; the awful crime seems to be that Carter, eking out a career as a writer of soft-core pornography, will no longer be hitching his fortunes to the up-and-coming Sofia. When Carter slouches out the side door of the diner into the harsh daylight, unlit cigarette dangling from his downturned lips, he looks ridiculous.
And yet I’m pretty sure we’re meant to feel his pain. Look, if I were convinced Kasdan’s intent was to good-naturedly ridicule Carter for his apocalyptic despair (or if Carter were eighteen rather than somewhere in his mid-twenties), I would’ve hopped right on the film’s wavelength. But the joke in the very next scene, which has Carter seeking solace from his eccentric mother (always good to see JoBeth Williams), is that mom is distraught over Sofia exiting her life; that her son is emotionally devastated doesn’t immediately register. Oh, the inhumanity! Kasdan might as well have had Carter lock himself in his bedroom and cued up Andrew Gold’s "Lonely Boy".
The film perks up, though, once Carter skips town to take care of his elderly grandmother (Olympia Dukakis) in Michigan. This, he believes, is just what he needs: a little time away from the grind of Los Angeles, where no one, including an aggressive soft-core producer desperate for rewrites, will be able to find him. The amusing banter between Carter and his death-obsessed nana are a showcase for the very good writer Kasdan might one day become. Even though many of the scenarios are stock (e.g. grandmother interrupting a sexually explicit phone conversation between Carter and his producer), Kasdan puts his own spin on them – though it certainly isn’t a curse that he’s got Brody and Dukakis to gamely knock the ball back-and-forth. Meanwhile, the lack of gravitas with which grandma views her nearing expiration serves as a nice counterpoint to Carter’s unflattering lugubriousness.
But Kasdan believes Carter’s true emotional growth will be inspired by the women across the street. Actually, it’s not growth Carter is after; it’s relief. And it’s largely provided by Sarah Hardwicke (Meg Ryan), the unhappily wed, fortyish mother of two daughters. As Carter’s mother reminds him, women have always been drawn to him, so I guess this explains why Sarah is so hot to take long walks with a depressed young man with little to offer in the way of perspective. But he’s nice and, most importantly, a willing confidante on whom Sarah can unload her midlife dissatisfaction, which is largely the product of recently discovered breast cancer and an unfaithful husband. Unfortunately, their conversation alternates between banal and unbearable; Kasdan commits the classic young writer’s sin of falling in love with his dialogue, resulting in long walk-and-talks that go nowhere. Though he might one day develop his father’s gift for bluntly perceptive discourse (on display throughout The Big Chill and Grand Canyon), he doesn’t have the chops to pull this off just yet.
Kasdan fares a little better with the scenes between Carter and Sarah’s mildly rebellious teenage daughter, Lucy (Kristen Stewart), who is all broken up over her star quarterback boyfriend. That rare breed of attractive and smart, Lucy doesn’t want to be dating a brainless boor, but her appearance and her affluence – the Hardwicke’s are definitely well off – dictate otherwise. Unwittingly following Sarah’s lead, Lucy uses Carter as a confessional for all the innocuous little secrets she can’t share with her mother; and, as is also the case with Sarah, there’s definitely some sexual chemistry percolating as well – meaning Carter could make the Hardwicke house his one-stop-shop for entrance into the 20-10 Club if he were cunning enough. Even the youngest Hardwicke, Paige (Makenzie Vega), falls head over heels for Carter after a sweetly-written movie date – meaning he could also land himself in jail for 10-20 if he were predatory enough.
Since Kasdan lacks the life experience to guide Carter to any kind of believable epiphany, In the Land of Women never amounts to more than ninety minutes of fruitless soul searching. The film means well, and it’s got a genuinely good heart (which is all too rare these days), but its protagonist needs a kick in the pants, not a pat on the back. The same can be said of the director. This is the work of someone who’s been indulged rather than challenged.