At the start of Lake Bell’s new comedy, “I Do…Until I Don’t,” a fierce, celebrated documentary filmmaker named Vivian Prudeck (played by Dorothy Wells) is giving a lecture on the notion of matrimony. During her presentation, we see a montage of wedding footage. Prudeck declares (in the film’s opening lines): “For life…no one wants anything for life.” Her anti-marriage, outside-the-the-box plea concludes with the suggestion that couples try “marriage with a seven-year contract, with an option to renew.” Among those attending Prudeck’s speech is the sweet, loopy Alice (played by Bell), who confesses to Prudeck that she loves her husband Noah (played by Ed Helms) but isn’t entirely satisfied with her marriage. Prudeck jumps at the opportunity to snag Alice as a subject for her new anti-marriage documentary, going so far to thrust a release form in Alice’s face and suggesting a monetary reward if she divorces Noah. Prudeck seeks out others in Alice’s circle to participate in her film, including Alice’s “free-thinking” sister Fanny (Amber Heard), Fanny’s goofy boyfriend Zander (Wyatt Cenac) and a long-married, bickering couple (Paul Reiser and Mary Steenburgen) who appear all too eager to separate.
I was looking forward to Bell’s latest, as her prior debut as a writer/director, “…In A World,” was a sharp, unique comedy. That film explored the careers of movie trailer voice actors working in Hollywood. In addition to depicting a most-unusual job occupation, it was funny and satirical, as well as gentle and sweet. Bell comes from the point-and-shoot directorial approach of helming a comedy but, as a veteran of many studio products and independent works, she’s experienced and understands the genre. Yet, with her latest, she’s giving into the more formulaic, lazier aspects of the genre.
The set-up is fairly promising and all the elements seem in place for a sharp farce with progressive commentary on the practicalities of getting married. Unfortunately, Bell’s underdeveloped, sitcom-ready screenplay comes up short.
Whereas “…In A World” offered a knowing, sharp look at its collection of pretentious, highly competitive cluster of actors, the only element in her latest with real bite is Wells’ performance as the venomous, opportunistic Prudeck. The biggest laughs are the throwaway bits, like a mock trailer to Prudeck’s prior film and a bit where a boy, raised without any television, stares at a plant in awe.
All of this is mild and predictably sweet, with some of the raunchier moments coming across as out-of-place and awkwardly half baked. The cruder bits (like an un-flushed toilet halting an afternoon “quickie”)aren’t funny and one sequence, in which Reiser visits a “massage parlor,” is embarrassing for everyone involved.
Helms is reliably good as Alice’s sweet, nerdy husband but Bell’s performance is alarmingly mannered. The best turns come from Reiser and Steenburgen, both wonderful as always. There’s also an admittedly great montage set to Heart’s “Alone” that works better than expected. This late-in-the-film touch made me wonder if Bell’s film would course-correct itself. Unfortunately, it’s the set up for a limp finish, full of groan-worthy, rom-com cliches.
The best thing about Bell’s film is that it’s not mean spirited and, despite the inconclusive outcome, does seem to have something on its mind about traditional relationships. The worst thing I can say about “I Do…Until I Don’t” is that it feels like the kind of cute and forgettable exercise you’d expect from Nia Vardalos . While Bell’s directorial debut was a step above the usual trappings of the genre, her latest starts strong, then adheres to a standard rom-come checklist.
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