It’s worth remembering that triple-threat writer-director-actor Lake Bell’s first feature, the justly lauded In a World …, was essentially an antique polished with a contemporary sheen. As smart and original as the film was, it conjured a culture of competitive movie-trailer voice-over artists that no longer exists, as the business of film promotion has long jettisoned this tacky ’90s staple.
Bell’s pedestrian sophomore feature, I Do … Until I Don’t, is likewise stuck in the past, treading clumsily on shopworn bromides about so-called reality entertainment and the nefarious motivations of its creators. It’s as much a ’90s nostalgia piece as the Jenny Slate vehicle Landline (currently in limited release) but without the self-awareness and with little of its likeability.
Designed, with painfully schematic plotting, as a multigenerational comedy of remarriage, I Do … Until I Don’t follows three wedded couples caught in the machinations of one Vivian Prudeck (Dolly Wells), a documentary propagandist whose projects aim to dispel the tradition of lifelong matrimony. We’re just peripatetic mammals, after all, biologically driven to pursue multiple partners, and marriage hamstrings our inherent nature. A close-up of Vivian, in the film’s opening monologue, reveals rotting teeth, symbolizing Bell’s lazy shorthand for this hiss-worthy cartoon villain, with her belief in marriage as a “seven-year contract with an option to renew.”
Vivian is visiting Vero Beach, of all places (Bell spent time as a teenager in the nondescript city), to find candidates for her latest film, an exposé of discontent couples buckling under marriage’s constrictions. Bell’s character, Alice, is a devotee of Vivian’s ideology in theory if not practice. She’s married to Ed Helms’ Noah, a blinds salesman with a cratering business. They’ve been trying to have a child for four years, and this lack of success, along with her diminished libido and their economic turmoil, has led to misgivings about their future together.
Alice shoehorns her way into Vivian’s movie with promises of added marital strife and the potential for a hefty stipend. But the pernicious filmmaker is more enthused about her other subjects, wilting boomers Cybil (Mary Steenburgen) and Harvey (Paul Reiser), whose unhappy union has manifest in a severed relationship with their daughter and in Harvey’s motorcycle-adopting midlife crisis.
Vivian is also tracking a pair of polyamorous hippies, Fanny and Zander (Amber Heard and Wyatt Cenac), whose open marriage is on course to exemplify Vivian’s free-roaming philosophy. Fanny, by the way, is Alice’s sister, though Vivian arrived at these women independently, and Cybil and Harvey will each have their own chance encounter with the documentary’s other subjects.
Vero Beach is either a very small town, or this is the sort of pea-brained comedy where characters keep converging in kooky coincidences. The dumbest of these axis points, a sleazy “spa” across the street from a gas station, leads to the most ludicrous sequence in Bell’s young oeuvre.
It’s only the most glaring example that Bell has made a film that is utterly beneath her. Like sunbeams in a cloudy sky, her talent occasionally peaks through the bankrupt clichés. There’s a nicely awkward post-masturbation dialogue early on between Alice and Noah, and a perfectly discomfiting gift exchange between Alice and Fanny. But even the movie’s more graceful notes evoke better and more honest films, namely Woody Allen’s Husbands & Wives, with its marriages untethering under a documentary-style lens, and Albert Brooks’ prescient Real Life, which expertly satirized the deceptions of reality television.
Beyond its ensemble of one-dimensional stock characters lies the movie’s more banal agenda. I Do … Until I Don’t is as much a propaganda piece as its cardboard antagonist seeks to produce. It’s a simplistic moral counter to the destructive impulses of alternative lifestyles — the fact that polyamory might actually work for healthy couples never enters its radar — or even to the potentially curative effects of divorce.
The world would be a lot better, the film chides us, if we all conformed to the norms of matrimony. I eventually found myself rooting for Vivian; perhaps, if she got her way, this vanilla lecture might actually surprise us.
I DO … UNTIL I DON’T. Director: Lake Bell; Cast: Lake Bell, Ed Helms, Dolly Wells, Mary Steenburgen, Paul Reiser, Amber Heard, Wyatt Cenac; Distributor: The Film Arcade; Opens: Today at AMC CityPlace in West Palm Beach, Movies of Lake Worth, Downtown at the Gardens in Palm Beach Gardens, Movies of Delray and Regal Shadowood in Boca Raton