Your relationship with Lake Bell’s new film, I Do…Until I Don’t will change over the course of its running time, much like the relationships between her characters change over the course of lifetimes. The change is symmetrical, too: As we warm up to the movie, so too do the members of Bell’s cast, after starting out at odds, warm up to each other.
Sinking just shy of an hour into a discordant, flailing movie before it turns itself around to the surprise of all doesn’t sound like an especially good way to spend an afternoon. I Do…Until I Don’t, then, is a tough recommendation. It’s loaded with talent—Bell of course, directing and writing here as she did in her stellar 2013 directorial debut, In a World…—like Ed Helms, Paul Reiser, Mary Steenburgen, Amber Heard and Wyatt Cenac. It’s also unfocused, which feels uncharacteristic of Bell even though she’s only gone behind the camera on one movie prior to this. In a World… sprawled a bit, too, but at least it tied its sprawl together seamlessly. In I Do…Until I Don’t, the sprawl eventually condenses only through the Herculean efforts of its author.
The film introduces its basic premise—that marriage is an outdated concept in 2017—and then follows that premise as it invades the lives of a trio of married couples: Alice and Noah (Bell and Helms), Cybil and Harvey (Steenburgen and Reiser), and Fanny and Zander (Heard and Cenac). Promoting this idea is one Vivian Prudeck (Dolly Wells), a snobby, thoroughly grating British documentary filmmaker who has relocated herself to Florida to work on her next project. (As far as dubiously specific set-ups go, this one ain’t half bad; Panama City, as of 2013, is the American divorce capital. Vivian does her research, apparently.) Her argument is simple: Marriage should be remade as a contract system with a seven-year duration, at the end of which couples can choose to renew the contract.
I Do…Until I Don’t’s pairs of husbands and wives are part of Vivian’s experiment, each of them reacting to her proposal through the process of self-discovery. Everyone here lies, and to entirely different parties: They lie to their spouses, to the audience, to themselves. Ultimately, all of them lie to Vivian, too, but that happens only after I Do…Until I Don’t finds its groove and desists in struggling through its narrative like a constipated workaday studio comedy.
The biggest problem Bell runs into as she gets the film moving is nuance. It’d be unfair to accuse her of playing with caricature, but each person involved with Vivian’s movie feels thinly sketched to the point of grotesquerie. Noah and Harvey are respectively ignorant of and negligent toward their wives’ feelings. Alice and Cybil are respectively demure and indelicate. (Fanny and Zander, so named, it seems, to approximate the title of a certain Ingmar Bergman movie, can’t keep their hands off each other, but if their love is real, their free spirited boho lifestyle is a facade.) If Bell’s intent is to trick us into accepting these characters as types and not as fully fleshed-out people, then the trick lasts way, way too long. When Alice and Noah share a tender, honest, domestically romantic moment together, opening up about gender-rooted insecurities and desires, it takes us off-guard. These aren’t the characters Bell acquainted us to in I Do…Until I Don’t’s first act and a half. They’re authentic human beings.
To see that humanity revealed is an enormous relief. I Do…Until I Don’t doesn’t feel bad up until that flash of catharsis, but it does feel phony and unsophisticated. In a World… affords its characters the right to be obnoxious, but they’re also drawn for compassion. For Bell, “petty” and “crude” are just personality traits, not personalities unto themselves. I Do…Until I Don’t reflects that sensibility eventually.
It just takes longer for it to get there, and it’s well worth waiting for, too. Bell’s trademark approach to writing jokes remains the same; her humor is rooted not in what’s said but how it’s said, such that the humor itself might not read as humor if spoken by different actors. Characters don’t talk as much as they wander into dead ends when they attempt to communicate with each other. Bell has drawn comparisons to Woody Allen, and those comparisons are mostly fair. The major difference is that Allen wrote punchlines. Bell, by contrast, writes blather as a punchline unto itself. (She’s also great at selling blather as comedy. You can see the panic in Alice’s eyes as she prattles, as if she’s hoping for an emergency exit to materialize out of thin air and facilitate her escape from the conversation.)
One essential detail keeps I Do…Until I Don’t on the rails: Bell’s eye behind the lens. She likes to make use of her frames, minimizing dead space in each shot and making sure there’s something happening at all times, giving the film a busy energy that holds it together even at its loosest. Maybe this isn’t the sophomore picture we’d hoped for, but it’s sharp and insightful regardless. Marriage isn’t always romantic, and it definitely isn’t always pretty, but it is constant, and maybe that constancy is a better reward than anything an average bullshit rom-com could conjure.
Director: Lake Bell
Writer: Lake Bell
Starring: Lake Bell, Ed Helms, Mary Steenburgen, Paul Reiser, Amber Heard, Wyatt Cenac, Dolly Wells, Chace Crawford
Release Date: September 1, 2017
Boston-based pop culture critic Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He also writes words for The Playlist, WBUR’s The ARTery, Slant Magazine, The Hollywood Reporter, Polygon, Thrillist, and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.