After Lake Bell’s smart, unconventional debut, “In a World. . .” (2013), her new film, “I Do . . . Until I Don’t” (she apparently likes ellipses in her titles), is disappointingly ordinary.
The multitalented writer-director-actress takes on the institution of marriage in that most conventional of genres, the romantic comedy. After a somewhat subversive start, the film devolves into predictable patterns and sketchy stereotypes. It works . . . until it doesn’t.
In her performance as mild and bewildered Alice, Bell sets an early tone of gentle, sometimes raunchy absurdity, playing off Ed Helms as her feckless but determined spouse, Noah, with rapid-fire, non-sequitur dialogue, most of it funny but with a dark undercurrent of self-deprecating desperation. Understandably so, because Alice and Noah’s life is a sham — after seven years of marriage they own a window shade store in Vero Beach, Fla., that is going out of business and they’ve been trying unsuccessfully to have a child, a problem compounded by the fact that they rarely have sex.
So dull is their situation that Alice has a hard time convincing Vivian (Dolly Wells, a cross between the ditsy BBC journalist in “Nashville” and Cruella De Vil), a visiting documentarian, that they are a suitable subject for her film about the obsolescence of marriage. Vivian is more interested in Cybil and Harvey (Mary Steenburgen and Paul Reiser), who have been married for far too long and can’t have a simple lunch without spewing venom at each other (Bell has a gift for the bon mot, but her clever dialogue makes all the characters talk alike).
Vivian also sees fertile material in Alice’s sister Fanny (Amber Heard) and her “open” relationship with Zander (Wyatt Cenac). So does Bell, who mercilessly satirizes their brand of free-spirited, arts-and-crafty millennials who make agave distilleries out of copper and renovate motorcycle sidecars while living off daddy’s trust fund. They have a son who not only is not allowed to watch TV but doesn’t even know that such a thing exists, and their household is frequented by such artistes as a mystic Lithuanian folk music ensemble.
All are pawns in Vivian’s project; this may be the only film ever made with a documentarian as the villain, and Vivian is probably the only documentarian who pays subjects $10,000 to talk about their unremarkable relationships. Bell deftly parodies Vivian’s vérité style of wobbly, gratuitous close-ups of hands and facial features but her characterization of Vivian as a nasty feminist gadfly seems a little reactionary.
Will Vivian’s attempt to subvert marriage backfire as each couple comes to recognize the value of holding onto a partner for life? In a world where promising filmmakers fall into the easy resolutions of Hollywood genres, that may well be the case.
★ ★ ½
I DO . . . UNTIL I DON’T
Written and directed by Lake Bell. Starring Bell, Ed Helms, Mary Steenburgen, Paul Reiser, Amber Heard, Wyatt Cenac, Dolly Wells, Chace Crawford. At Boston Common, West Newton, suburbs. 106 minutes. R (sexual material and language).