Rarely do American movies deal with the development of an intense friendship. “The Station Agent” and “Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont” managed it, and so did “Bridge to Terabithia,” but there aren’t many other recent examples.
Perhaps that’s why the relative failure of writer-director Jonathan Kasdan’s debut movie, “In the Land of Women,” feels so frustrating. It’s almost all alone out there, and you feel like giving it the benefit of the doubt even when it turns sappy. Fortunately, there’s enough truth in the performances to carry it for long stretches of dubious dialogue and contrived resolutions.
Adam Brody, best-known for playing Seth Cohen on “The O.C.,” is consistently fresh and surprising as the mopey hero, Carter Webb, a writer who is rudely dumped by his longtime girlfriend (Elena Anaya) in the opening scene. While she’s delivering the standard kiss-off lines (“I care about you, very much,” “I need a space”), Carter says almost nothing.
But Brody, who can twist his gentle features ever so slightly to suggest rage or despair or delight, registers immediately as a devastated soul. When he tells his mother (JoBeth Williams) about the breakup, she inadvertently sounds like she sympathizes with the girl. He decides to leave Los Angeles to care for his dying grandmother (Olympia Dukakis) in suburban Michigan.
The family across the street includes an adulterous husband (Clark Gregg), a precocious 11-year-old (Makenzie Vega), her lonely teenage sister (Kristen Stewart) and their troubled mother, Sarah (Meg Ryan), who has breast cancer and knows about her husband’s affair. Carter and Sarah both need to talk as well as listen, and soon they’re taking long walks that form the basis of what ultimately becomes a crucial relationship.
A son of “Body Heat” director Lawrence Kasdan (the film’s executive producer) and a former writer on “Freaks and Geeks” and “Dawson’s Creek,” Kasdan drew from his own experiences when he wrote the script. But the relationship he remembered, with an older woman separated from her husband, was platonic. It should have stayed that way on-screen.
The moment the movie starts to resemble a remake of “The Graduate,” with both mother and daughter becoming romantically attached to Carter, it loses something essential, something that made it special. The idea of these two as sexual rivals simply doesn’t play.
Ryan and Stewart (who was Jodie Foster’s young daughter in “Panic Room”) do dig to find some truth in it, but the effort is futile. As a director, Kasdan also falters at this point. The leisurely confidence and lightheartedness of the early scenes, with Carter and Sarah bonding as they sift through their troubles, is missing.
The falseness of the situation begins to seep into other aspects of the script: a fistfight that seems much too melodramatic, the chirpy cuteness of Vega’s dialogue, a couple of long-distance phone conversations with the ex-girlfriend — plus happy endings for nearly everyone. What began as a reasonably honest portrait of two people at a crossroads in their lives gradually turns into a TV movie for the gullible.