If you’ve never seen 2013’s “In a World,” the first film as writer-director from luminescent actress Lake Bell, drop everything and rent it. Yes, the comedy about a struggling voice-over actor living in the shadow of her famous father is that good.
If you have seen “In a World,” I’d advise that you watch it again rather than race to Bell’s long-awaited follow-up, “I Do … Until I Don’t.”
That’s a painful piece of advice, but an appropriate one. There’s no sugarcoating the fact that “I Do” is a tremendous disappointment. Watchable but mostly dull, occasionally insightful but mostly limp, the film is as uninspired as its cliched title.
This would be true even without the existence of “In a World,” a whip-smart tale of a Hollywood fringe player and one of the freshest directorial debuts of the decade. It was also the best role yet for Bell, an actor stuck with modest supporting roles in rom-coms like “It’s Complicated” and “No Strings Attached.” “In a World (and Adult Swim’s sadly departed “Children’s Hospital”) deservedly elevated her to upper realm of young stars.
Now, four years later, comes this a somber ensemble comedy centered around three couples whose difficult relationship status is catnip for a British documentary filmmaker named Vivian (Dolly Wells).
Alice (Bell) and Noah (“Hangover” star Ed Helms) own a dreary shop specializing in blinds and are unsuccessfully trying to conceive a child. They are in dire financial straits, and the money offered by Vivian can't be turned down.
Things are seemingly happier for Alice’s free-spirit sister, Fanny (Amber Heard), and her chilled husband, Zander (Wyatt Cenac of "The Daily Show"). Theirs is an open marriage, and the couple has a young son, but Fanny and Zander have issues of their own.
An open marriage might be appealing to Cybill (Mary Steenburgen) and Harvey (Paul Reiser), the other couple in Vivian’s web. Their relationship is the most sour of the three, but it’s also the most intriguing.
Vivian’s thesis is that marriage should be a seven-year contract with an option to renew, and she hopes the trio of married couples will solidify her argument.
The documentary elements add little; films like Albert Brooks’s “Real Life” and Noah Baumbach’s “While We’re Young” mined this material more successfully. And the marriage woes feel just as stale. While Bell has nailed the economic malaise affecting so many Americans, nothing onscreen feels remotely fresh.
There is not a single true laugh in all of the film's 103 minutes. Some moments elicit smiles, but no more. For a comedy, that means certain failure. While the final stretch is a bit livelier than the weak first hour, there is still little reason to care.
Still, there is evidence of the warmth and originality Bell brought to her debut. One of Bell’s greatest talents is her ability to write small, incisive parts for great character actors – think the unforgettable Fred Melamed in "In a World."
Paul Reiser and Mary Steenburgen are standouts and the film may have worked if Reiser, the “Diner” and “Mad About You” favorite, and the perennially wonderful Steenburgen, were the focus. Keep Reiser and Steenburgen, and jettison the documentary angle, and “I Do” would be a much stronger picture.
While “I Do … Until I Don’t” is fiercely unmemorable, it does not diminish the success of Bell’s career. There’s no doubt she’ll be back with a far better creation than this one, and soon.
“I Do … Until I Don’t”
2 stars (out of 4)
Lake Bell, Ed Helms, Mary Steenburgen, Paul Reiser star in ensemble comedy about three couples caught in the web of a jaded filmmaker. 103 minutes. Rated R for sexual material and language.