I like to tell myself that if my father was an Oscar nominated writer and director with several hits and at least four films that can be considered cultural touchstones under his belt (2 written, 2 written/directed); and if this father executive produced a screenplay I wrote and got his Oscar nominated, long-time editor to do the cutting; and finally, if my father’s name helped attract a cast including Meg Ryan and Olympia Dukakis; then yes I too could be a successful filmmaker. This is the deranged fantasy of a bitter man still nursing unfulfilled Hollywood dreams of course, but these are the kinds of things that help me sleep of a cold, dark night and I’d surely appreciate it if you did nothing to disabuse me of this notion. Thank you very much.
Anyway, if your definition of a successful filmmaker is having your debut film open on 2155 screens across the country with or without the help of your famous father, then Jon Kasdan has struck cinematic gold with In the Land of Women. On the other hand, if your definition assumes that the film in question does not actually suck, then sadly Kasdan has just struck out.
If you recognize the name Jon Kasdan, it’s probably because he’s the son of Lawrence Kasdan who wrote The Empire Strikes Back (Star Wars II…or V depending on how big of a nerd you are…I’m a pretty big nerd, but I’m sticking with II because that way I can pretend Jar-Jar Binks never happened) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (Indiana Jones I, unless you go by the order in which the films took place, then it’s II). The elder Kasdan also wrote and directed Body Heat and The Big Chill (neither has a sequel that I know of, which is surprising considering Hollywood’s penchant for taking a successful idea and beating the living holy hell out of it, but they both have many imitators and the soundtrack to the latter was so popular they made a 2nd one back in the days of vinyl when you couldn’t possibly fit all of that Baby Boomer Friendly Motown Retro Goodness on just one disc) and has several other successful films to his credit. It’s fair to assume, I think, that young Jon has certain career advantages not shared by the vast majority of folks trying to make their way in Hollywood. I think it’s important, however, to judge someone not by the opportunities they’re given but by how they take advantage of those opportunities once they get them. It was in this spirit that I tried to watch In the Land of Women.
I failed, but it’s the thought that counts, right?
The film stars Adam Brody (The O.C., Thank You For Smoking) as Carter Webb, a 26 year old writer with aspirations of doing something finer and more serious than the scripts for soft-core porn he’s been cranking out. Already we’re in trouble because I’m thinking “Wait…they actually need people to write soft-core pornography?” and “Is anyone outside of a screenplay actually named ‘Carter Webb’?” Anyway, the film begins in Los Angeles where Carter finds himself getting dumped by his hot, Spanish, supermodel/actress girlfriend. Apparently when you’re the spawn of Hollywood royalty, this sort of thing is a life altering event, even worse than showing up at a party carrying the same purse as Paris Hilton. I know this because this is the scene that sets the whole story in motion.
Anxious for a change, young Carter trots off to Michigan to care for Olympia Dukakis, his crazy stereotype of a grandmother who conveniently lives next door to Sarah Hardwicke (Meg Ryan, here leaving terminally cute Sally Albright behind and embracing full on MILF mode) and her pretty, but angsty 16 year old daughter Lucy played by Kristen Stewart (Jodie Foster’s daughter in Panic Room). Carter’s main goal is to have some quiet time away from Hollywood (and all those pesky hot supermodel/actress/sirens that always seem to be lurking about, looking to trip up earnest and creative young fellows like our hero. I’m pretty sure that’s what’s kept me from a career as a writer too…anyway that’s my story and I’m sticking to it) so he can focus on one of his more serious writing projects. Naturally this leaves ample time for him to become emotionally/romantically entangled with neighbor-MILF Sarah (her husband is cheating on her, her daughter doesn’t understand her and…oh yeah, she has cancer) and Lucy (she’s having boyfriend troubles, her mom doesn’t understand her and…oh yeah, her mom has cancer).
That’s the set-up, so how well does it all play out? Unfortunately the problems with the film begin in the very first scene and I never found myself buying into the story after that. The trouble I think is rooted in the screenplay. It probably reads well, but the movie never seems to come off the page. You can practically hear Kasdan’s keystrokes as he types away on his laptop, ensconced in the cozy confines of his parents’ Telluride vacation home. The child and teen characters talk like 26 year olds and the adult characters talk like…well…26 year olds. The real 26 year old talks as though he has all the answers but sounds like he acquired his world view not from living a hard life but from watching Grand Canyon, The Accidental Tourist and The Big Chill in his dad’s screening room over and over and over again.
Many of the dramatic plot points in the film felt like…dramatic plot points. They lacked gravity and a sense of importance or even reality. The early break-up scene is played more for humor and it has zero impact. Another event later in the film that ought to be moving is handled lightly and quickly forgotten about. In fact, moments later Carter is teary-eyed but he’s chatting up Sarah as though nothing out of the ordinary has just happened.
The film isn’t a complete bust. Some of the performances are good. Olympia Dukakis is funny, but her character is a plot device, a screenplay construct designed to be crazy when the story needs some laughs and sage when some wisdom is required. Meg Ryan is likeable enough, if by definition of “likeable enough” you accept: “ok, well, I wasn’t struck by the urge to run her down in the street with my car, back over her skull, stop the car, get out, siphon some gasoline from the tank and use it to set the bloody pulp of her corpse ablaze”, then yeah, she was indeed likeable enough. Full disclosure: I’ve never cared for Ryan’s screen persona and I’m glad to see her branching out in different directions. In fact, more than once during the movie I found myself thinking she was quite good. For this reason I’m not even going to make any collagen lip jokes. Kristin Stewart was ok, but as written, her character is too much a teen in the precocious Dawson’s Creek mode.
Brody’s turn wasn’t as successful as these others. I enjoyed him as Rob Lowe’s smarmy assistant in Thank You For Smoking, but here he wasn’t able to pull off the combination of funny, charming, smart and sensitive the role of Carter really cried out for. I found I never actually liked the character and again I blame the screenplay.
To be fair, I admit I probably went into this movie with knives drawn, secretly hoping to tear it apart should it fail and probably analyzing it too carefully to ensure that it would. I had a similar attitude about Sophia Coppola’s first film The Virgin Suicides. Though I liked that film much more than Kasdan’s first effort, I still remember having an “I could’ve done that if…” feeling afterwards. Of course Coppola went on to make Lost in Translation, one of my favorite movies of 2003 and Marie Antoinette which I thought was an underrated gem from last year, so there’s still plenty of hope for Kasdan.
Ultimately, I’m probably not the target audience for this one. Indeed, the mostly younger female audience I saw it with seemed to eat it up like the warm, bland Cream of Wheat that it was. Others will probably enjoy it as well, though I’m guessing they’ll have forgotten it by the time the next batch of movies come out.
In the Land of Women: USA 2007. Written and directed by Jon Kasdan. Starring Adam Brody, Meg Ryan, Kristen Stewart and Olympia Dukakis. 1 hour 37 minutes. MPAA rating: PG-13 for sexual content, thematic elements and language. 2 stars (out of 5)