In 2013, actress Lake Bell made her directorial debut with “In a World . . .” Accolades for the charming romantic comedy about gender discrimination in the voice-over industry — which she also wrote, produced and starred in — quickly piled up, including a screenwriting award at the Sundance Film Festival.
First-time success, however, can be a blessing and a curse. Four years on, Bell has made a very different, and much less inspired, film: a shaggy-dog ensemble comedy about the relative merits of marriage called “I Do . . . Until I Don’t.” The cumbersome title isn’t the only thing begging to be reworked.
At least the acting is good. Bell stars as Alice, a soft-spoken yet tightly-wound 34-year-old married to Noah (Ed Helms), the dull owner of a struggling venetian blinds store in Vero Beach, Fla. She doesn’t seem especially happy in the marriage, given the chronic discomfort she exhibits around her husband. Admittedly, he has some odd tics, including a frequent request that she breathe on him. (He finds her smelly breath erotic.) After Alice attends a lecture by a cynical documentarian named Vivian (Dolly Wells) on the obsolescence of marriage, she starts to re-examine her life.
Vivian, a snooty Brit, has come to Florida — the divorce capital of America, as she insists — to find couples who will prove her theory: Monogamy is not a sustainable concept, now that life expectancies are so long. In place of until-death-do-us-part, Vivian proposes a seven-year contract, with the option to renew.
In other words, she is looking for the unhappiest couples she can find. Luckily for her, Vivian immediately stumbles on a gold mine at a diner one afternoon: Harvey and Cybil (Paul Reiser and Mary Steenburgen), the epitome of a bitter, long-married pair. Hearing Cybil snipe at Harvey for wearing his motorcycle helmet indoors is sweet music to Vivian’s ears.
Meanwhile, Vivian also signs up Alice and Noah as film subjects, along with Alice’s sister Fanny (Amber Heard) and Fanny’s partner, Zander (Wyatt Cenac), who are in an open relationship. This creates extra tension between the sisters, who are different in every way. Fanny and Zander are hippie-dippy cliches, ostentatiously touching everyone around them and gushing about moon-chanting circles.
The story often feels like a collection of (so-so) jokes, forcibly strung together in a tenuous narrative. In the process of shoehorning characters into ludicrous situations, logic often falls by the wayside, as when Alice hits upon the idea of moonlighting as a sex worker. That’s not nearly as outlandish as some of the 180-degree turns that other characters make during the movie’s final act. By then, the objective is less to get to the next laugh than to paint marriage as some absurdly idyllic institution, which doesn’t really jibe with the rest of the film. Meanwhile, such seemingly important plot threads as Alice and Noah’s money troubles suddenly disappear, without explanation.
The movie works best as a satire of pretentious documentaries made by filmmakers who aren’t above pulling a few strings. When we see the interviews through Vivian’s camera — whether zooming in on her subjects’ wedding rings or secretly capturing footage of her subjects after they’ve told her to stop filming — the view is hilariously over-the-top. But these little bits of brilliance never last long. Inevitably, we wind up back in cliche territory with a bunch of characters who might be better off with a seven-year contract after all.
R. At area theaters. Contains sexual situation and strong language. 103 minutes.