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I DO…UNTIL I DON’T (2017) review

September 4, 2017

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written by: Lake Bell
produced by: Miranda Bailey, Amanda Marshall, Jett Steiger & Lake Bell
directed by: Lake Bell
rated: R for sexual material and language
runtime: 103 min.
U.S. release date: September 1, 2017 (limited)

 

Actress Lake Bell stepped behind the camera for her 2013 directorial debut entitled “In a World…”, which took an endearing rare look at the career of a professional voice actor. Bell starred in and wrote the screenplay for the drama and established her proclivity for quirky humor, emotional introspection and eruptive confrontation. It was a funny and charming first film that left me anticipating what would come next from Bell. Unfortunately, I have to categorize her latest “I Do…Until I Don’t” (clearly she has an ellipsis trilogy in mind) as a sophomore slump. It’s a comedy with big swings, free of subtlety or nuance, and major strike outs. While it boasts a mostly solid cast, what Bell has herself and them doing is either ridiculous or off-putting and that’s a shame considering the potential of the subject she is mining. 

The story here revolves around three couples in Vero Beach, Florida,  who find themselves caught up in a documentary being filmed by eccentric filmmaker, Vivian (Dolly West), who’s on a quest to prove that marriages should only last seven years with an option to renew. Vivian is currently looking for a few married (and hopefully miserable) candidates for her film. Alice (Lake Bell) is a big fan of this documentarian and happens to be unhappily married to Noah (Ed Helms), whom she runs a failing vertical blind business together. She finds out about the documentary that’s shooting in her area and looks into get involved in the production – and possibly getting paid – in the director’s film somehow, maybe even becoming subjects in the doc.

 

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Unbeknownst to Alice, her sister, Fanny (Amber Heard) and her artist husband, Zander (Wyatt Cenac), both of whom brag about their open marriage, has been tapped by Vivian to participate in the production. At the same time, Harvey (Paul Reiser) and his wife, Cybil (Mary Steenburgen), who’ve been married long enough to have an adult daughter, get sucked into Vivian’s probing questions about relationships. During all this, each couple begin to question and doubt their marriages, with Alice wrestling with the dreams she gave up for her life with Noah and Cybil trying to figure out why she’s so hostile toward Harvey. Predictably, Vivian’s involvement in these three marriages backfires, when all three couples manage to appreciate what they’ve experienced together and where they’re at right now, realizing just how good they have it.

Somewhere in this movie, there’s a good idea. I really liked the idea of getting to know three couples in different stages of life and inevitably connecting with them on some relatable level. That concept alone is ripe for interesting and compelling potential. Unfortunately, there are three elements that prevent viewers from experiencing any of that, which lead to the movie’s failure. That involves the inclusion of the documentary altogether and how Bell writes some of these characters with annoying personalities/attributes and how the story eventually concludes in a cheesy manner.

By including the goofy and abrasive Vivian and her marriage debunking documentary, “I Do…Until I Don’t” winds up bouncing back-and-forth to two tonally (and totally) different movies. I would’ve been fine if this broad comedic plot was omitting from the final draft with more time spent on developing the married characters. I get that Bell is attempting to insert a device that will involve these married couples, but it just feels like a tired and embarrassing gimmick. Plus, Vivian’s short-term marriage proposal feels dated. It’s a very late 80s/early 90s concept, a time when the rise of divorce in America was being well documented, with reasons and solutions being offered at every turn.

 

 

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However, getting rid of Vivian and her doc still wouldn’t help Bell’s movie, since it’s Bell herself who immediately started to turn me off. I don’t know what she was going for with her characterization and portrayal of Alice, but I found her to be really grating and unnatural. I’m aware we don’t always have to like the characters we follow in a movie, but Alice’s skittish behavior and paranoia is heavy-handed and off-putting; never fully explained or developed.

It’s hard to see how she and Noah ever hooked up, much less stay together. They’re an odd pairing and the bizarre quirks that Bell gives them, with Noah getting turned on by the smell of Alice’s bad breath and Alice being unable to reach orgasm on a full bladder. She also complains that Noah performs cunnilingus while wearing glasses, because it makes her feel like she’s being examined. All just random quirks played for laughs. I get that Bell is trying to give the couple a pile of little annoyances that have built up over time, but they just feel like they’re inserting for laughs and never do they have an weight or realism to them. It’s disappointing, since I generally like Bell and get intrigued when I see her pop up in movies, but I can’t figure out why or what she was going for in this role.

As Alice’s sister and husband, Heard and Cenac don’t really fare any better in their roles, coming across as overly hippy dippy, something straight out of a Fox sitcom or some tired SNL skit that immediately bombs. They embrace peace and live in a communal setting, preventing their child from television yet making love on their bed while the boy is in the same room. Sure, this probably happens, but it’s just another characterization that feels designed to get a laugh and comes across very forced and unnatural.

 

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The only measured and natural performances come from veterans Reiser and Steenburgen. I thought they were wonderful together (and in scenes where they’re separate) and could’ve easily seen an entire movie revolving around these empty nesters. Although Harvey is characterized as the typical clueless husband, there’s a loose charisma about Reiser that is endearing to watch. We see him experience a post midlife crisis as he suits up in a leather jacket and oversized helmet with a tinted visor, as he cruises around on a motorcycle. Reiser is comfortable in the role and plays it straight, often eliciting earned laughs because of this approach. Steenburgen portrays Cybil as someone with many layers, mostly of scar tissue from her marriage and regrets related to her estranged relationship with her daughter. This is likely why she’s uninterested in intimacy with Harvey, which leads her to buying him a massage parlor hand job as a birthday present.

With their obvious history and stubbornness, Harvey and Cybil feel like a real couple with real complications, feeling and hurts, thanks to the performances from Reiser and Steenburgen. Seeing how both Harvey and Cybil decide to individually come together over this motorcycle of his is sweet, which results in a great seen that involves “How Will I Get You Alone?”, a 80s song from the band Heart (a favorite of the couple). If only Bell would’ve trusted simply following couples that feel as real and natural as these two, allowing for comedy to arise from situations that are more relatable to viewers, instead of opting for sitcom humor.

“I Do…Until I Don’t” does include some serious relationship elements as well, such as Vivian’s internal struggles with Noah wanting children and Cybil’s inner torment over her broken relationship with estranged daughter. The problem is there’s little balance in the picture. In moments that could be heartfelt, Bell aims for the funny and rarely hits the target, which finds the writer/director allowing scenes to linger into forced cuteness. carry on long after they expire. I’m not going to write Bell off as a filmmaker. I’d really like to see her work with a co-writer who can offer balance to her material. She has a distinct point of view, but misfires with “I Do…Until I Don’t”, resulting in an almost forgettable endeavor.

RATING: **

 

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