Actress-writer-director Lake Bell channels Woody Allen in almost every sense with her latest feature, I DO…UNTIL I DON’T. Neurosis and charm co-mingle, taking the shape of a screwball-lite romcom about domesticity, marriage and monotony. While it holds some resonance, you might find yourself saying “I don’t,” until “I do.”
Pretentious documentarian Vivian (Dolly Wells, who’s needlessly dialed to “11” here) is visiting divorce hot-spring Vero Beach, Florida hoping to attract couples for her cinematic treatise on the futility of marriage. Through the lens of three local committed couples, she’s hoping to prove that monogamy is the absolute pits and an archaic institution. Those couples include constantly quarreling longtime marrieds Harvey (Paul Reiser) and Cybil (Mary Steenburgen, who’s usually the highlight in all movies except this one), younger harried marrieds Noah (Ed Helms) and Alice (Lake Bell), and Alice’s free-spirited sister Fanny (Amber Heard, her most lighthearted, energetic performance in years) and her hippy boyfriend Zander (Wyatt Cenac). Shenanigans ensue when Vivian abandons any artistic integrity in favor of manufacturing drama between the couples in order to support her argument. She enables Alice’s paranoia that Noah wants to sleep with Fanny. She coaxes out Zander’s pipe dreams of marital bliss. And she causes further rifts in Harvey and Cybil’s marital strife. The trouble is the hijinks and hilarity all go down in the most predictable of manners, and despite a heartening ending (one that’s the antithesis of most Allen movies), you’ll feel cheated that the foundation wasn’t stronger.
Given the set-up, you’ll have seen the end coming a mile away, thus invalidating your time spent on this. Watch ten minutes and you’ll have its number. Bell’s feature film directorial debut IN A WORLD… showed she’s a fully capable filmmaker, yet this feels like a noticeable step back. The kernel of this idea fails to pop like popcorn.
Characters and their predicaments are all terribly trite. Vivian – whose cynicism is wildly abrasive, and whose caustic temperament will repel rather than endear – is clearly acting out due to a broken heart. Wanna bet she’ll get hers? Noah and Alice aren’t on the same page in their lives when it comes to sex or running a business. Wanna bet Alice will rediscover her backbone? Sure, it may feel like a universal compromise to sublimate ourselves for the greater good of the marriage, but Bell crafts this “revelation” (a revelation to absolutely no one watching) with infuriatingly pat broad strokes. Maddeningly, Noah doesn’t notice his wife’s unhappiness… until out of contrivance he does. It’s clear to everyone with eyeballs that Zander seeks traditional concepts, yet Fanny is blinded to her partner’s needs… until she’s not, and we’re given little reason for the inevitable change of heart. Plus, it has to work overtime to converge these three couples’ storylines, and treats that convergence like an afterthought.
With very little insight to add the lackluster characterizations, there’s not much tethering you to this film. The best sequence – or rather the one that’s most alive – is when Alice, desperate to hide a lie from her husband, visits an escort-run massage parlor front to make a quick buck. Bell treats sex workers Bonnie (Chauntae Pink) and Lyn (Rae Gray), and their jobs, with absolute reverence, showing the importance of women helping other women. Bell remains conscious to not pit women against each other, being incredibly mindful when it comes to sisterly strife too.
Listen, had this been a true screwball comedy (what you’ll sense Bell was aiming for), it would’ve been far more successful. As is, it will make you want to call off the engagement.
I DO…UNTIL I DON’T opens on September 1.