I have a somewhat embarrassing confession to make. In the last month, I’ve become a fan of the recently canceled Fox show, “The O.C.” Of course, the only reason I consider it embarrassing is that the promos I saw when the show premiered four years ago made it look no more interesting than “Beverly Hills 90210.” It’s hard to convince anyone who hasn’t actually watched a few episodes that it isn’t, and I probably never would have checked out a DVD if it hadn’t been for Ira Glass, the host of the public radio show, “This American Life.”
On a recent episode of that program, several contributors read essays about television and the always-trustworthy Glass confessed to being a fan of the show in part because of the character of Seth Cohen. As played by Adam Brody, Seth is somewhat geeky, extremely talkative and almost always amusing. I had had been impressed by Brody in a couple of small roles in TV and movies (“Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” “Thank You For Smoking”), but hadn’t realized how likable and capable an actor he was until recently.
So when I heard that Brody would be playing his first leading movie role in “In the Land of Women,” I was definitely curious. The movie is far from perfect but worth seeing for several performances.
Brody plays Carter Webb, a 26-year-old writer of trashy movies who is dumped by his model girlfriend Sophia (Elena Anaya). Deciding that a change of scenery will help him regroup and maybe inspire him to write something decent, he flies out to Michigan to care for his aging grandmother, Phyllis (Olympia Dukakis). Shortly after arriving, Carter meets Sarah Hardwicke (Meg Ryan), a mother of two girls who lives next door. She warms up to Carter and they get to know each other while walking her dog. Soon, Sarah encourages her teenage daughter, Lucy (Kristen Stewart) to take Carter to the movies. She is horrified at the prospect of asking the much-older boy to accompany her, but eventually does anyway because she finds Carter as intriguing as her mother does. Her younger sister, Paige (Makenzie Vega) insists that she come along. And so begins the story of how Carter learns more about himself from these females and they learn the same about themselves in return.
I know. It sounds pretty hokey, right? Well, it is in many ways and is often just too precious. There are way too many things about the movie that seem very contrived, starting with the basic premise. Carter getting dumped serves as the catalyst for him to get out of Hollywood and head to Michigan for an experience that will inevitably change his life. Once he gets there, it’s clear that the script isn’t even remotely interested in Carter’s grandmother. She doesn’t seem to even know he was coming is written and played as the stereotypical “cranky old lady.” She’s not that funny and we feel just as desperate as Carter to get out of the house.
Upon meeting Sarah, she immediately starts unloading on him. After she learns that she has breast cancer, Carter becomes a confidante to both her and Lucy. Although Lucy feels awkward around Carter at first, she confides in him too, and helps her in several areas, including boy problems.
Dukakis isn’t the only actress saddled with a flat and underwritten role. As the younger sister, Vega is stuck playing the clichéd “precocious child” role, saying lines that sound like they’re written for a college student. The characterization seems pointless and feels like it’s only there to make a marginal character more noticeable. Also, the film moves rather sluggishly even at 97 minutes. There are too many scenes that would have been served better by cutting to the next scene rather than have characters talk and talk … and talk some more.
Still, even with all these major flaws, the movie is mostly enjoyable because of its appealing central performances. Brody gives Carter the same self-deprecating wit he brought to “The O.C.,” and he carries the movie without any trouble. Ryan also does good work here, but the most surprising performance comes from Stewart, previously seen as Jodie Foster’s daughter in 2002’s “Panic Room.” She plays Lucy as both youthfully naïve and as possessing a maturity that isn’t often seen in this type of role.
“Women” is directed by Jonathan Kasdan, one of the sons of Lawrence Kasdan (“The Big Chill”). If he manages to trim the dialogue-heavy fat off his next script and write more believable scenarios, he may be a director to watch.
“In the Land of Women” is rated PG-13: Parents strongly cautioned.