– By Cate Marquis –
When divorce laws loosened and sexual mores changed in the ’60s and ’70s, there was a spate of “why marry” films. Although they had contemporary settings, the comedies generally followed the outline of 18th century bedroom farce, with warring couples, bed-hopping and true love winning in the end. Director/writer/star Lake Bell hearkens back to that ’60s genre in her modern-day indie romantic comedy I DO…UNTIL I DON’T.” Although the film is set in present day Vero Beach, Florida, this formulaic film is straight out of the sixties.
The title and the movie trailer suggest that I DO…UNTIL I DON’T is more cynical about love and marriage than the film really is. The film has a great cast, including familiar faces like Mary Steenburgen, Paul Reiser, Amber Heard, Ed Helms, but it feels like a bit of a misfire for the talented Bell. If only the writer/director had come up with a better, fresher story idea. Although the film is set in present day Vero Beach, Florida, this formulaic film is straight out of the sixties, apart from a few updates.
The film focuses on three couples, who are brought together by a manipulative documentary filmmaker. Vivian (Dolly Wells) is a British documentarian with an agenda to take down the institution of marriage, following her own messy break-up. With an award-winning documentary to her credit, Vivian is able to command enough media attention to draw people to her public speeches promoting the new documentary she is working on, “I Do…Until I Don’t,” where she hopes to recruit subjects. She uses the familiar arguments – that marriage is artificial, imposed on people by society, and restricts our animal nature (ignoring that some form of marriage occurs in all human cultures and pair-bonding is common among animals). Vivian suggests that marriage be a seven-year contract (perhaps a reference to the Marilyn Monroe comedy “The Seven Year Itch”) and that couples could then renew or not.
Among the couples recruited for the documentary are a middle-aged pair who seem headed for divorce, Cybil (Mary Steenburgen) and Harvey (Paul Reiser), a couple in their 30s struggling to get pregnant, Alice (Lake Bell) and Noah (Ed Helms), and a free-spirited young couple, Fanny (Amber Heard) and Zander (Wyatt Cenac), who are not married but have a child, Zenith (Marcathonee Jon Reis) together. The film follows these three couples, as well as the documentary filmmaker and her camera woman Mel (Connie Shin), as it explores issues of modern love and marriage.
Or purports to explore them. In fact, the film mostly trots out a number of familiar tropes and romantic comedy cliches before wrapping it all up in a nice, happy bow. The film has one gay character, the camera woman, but there is no exploration of her love life nor of contemporary gender identity issues. The story pretty much looks like it was plucked out whole from the early ’70s, with all the expected character types and situations.
Still, the talented cast makes one want to like this film, and to root for it to be something more. The acting is good, and the cast does what they can to interject some energy into this story. But the script just doesn’t have enough to work with, a missed opportunity on Bell’s part. The directing is serviceable but unremarkable. The production values are polished enough, and the photography, locations, sets and costumes are pretty, but likewise nothing outstanding.
One has to wonder why Lake Bell, given this wonderful cast, chose to put them (and herself) in this too-familiar story. Even in the ’60s and ’70s, this genre was really a rehash of a 200-year-old formula, although with the added sexual frisson of pushing barriers of what could be discussed in films, or shown on screen. I DO…UNTIL I DON’T doesn’t even have that, as the film is surprisingly demure for a sex comedy.
The formulaic nature of the film make it a dull slog, although the talented cast do what they can to squeeze some life out of this tired plot. Even the millennial couple feel like re-purposed ’60s hippies, living in an art colony that looks a lot like a ’60s commune, and professing to have an “open” relationship, although they seem to have eyes only for each other.
The film gets a little better towards the end, again thanks to the good cast, but never seizes the opportunity to say something fresh about relationships.
I DO…UNTIL I DON’T is a feel-good romantic comedy that is far more tame than its title suggests. The cast is certainly likable, which helps lift the predictable material a bit. Audiences with a high tolerance for the familiar might enjoy the “love wins out” story but others might just skip it, and hope for something better next time from the talented Lake Bell.
© Cate Marquis