Saturday, March 15, 2014

Review: A.C.O.D.

As part of my so-called "Movie Diet" (see here for a fuller explanation), I have vowed to review all new films I see between now and April 27th.

The phenomenon at the center of A.C.O.D. is so commonplace these days that it hardly seems like it requires its own acronym. So many of us are Adult Children Of Divorce that to name us as though we suffer from some unusual syndrome is to make our circumstances a lot more exotic than they really are. (I include myself in this category, even though I was more or less an adult -- a 23-year-old, anyway -- when my parents announced their separation.)

The film does have an interesting point, I suppose, in that the generation of children who grew up with divorced parents are now reaching their 40s -- an age when they are, beyond the shadow of a doubt, adults themselves. The A.C.O.D. in question here is Carter, played by Adam Scott. Carter's parents (Richard Jenkins and Catherine O'Hara) had an epic breakup caught on video at his ninth birthday party, and have since been unable to be in the same room together. Their incompatibility will be put to the test when Carter's younger brother Trey (Clark Duke) announces he's marrying his girlfriend of four months (Valerie Tian), in what amounts to a feckless failure to understand the lessons of his parents' doomed union. Quite the opposite, Carter has been unwilling to propose to his own girlfriend (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) despite four years of dating bliss and her status as an ideal mate. As everyone prepares for the wedding, two things complicate Carter's otherwise salvaged adult life: 1) the possibility that his remarried parents may have gone from loathing each other to a torrid affair, and 2) the realization that he was the unwitting participant in a book about children of divorce, and the author (Jane Lynch) wants his witting participation in a follow-up.

Writer-director Stu Zicherman has smartly anchored his film with reliable comic veterans from several generations. Jenkins and O'Hara riotously represent the sixtysomethings, each coming up with a handful of line readings that remind you fondly of their best work. Scott, who did a zanier brand of comedy alongside Jenkins in Step Brothers, has settled into a groove as a terrific straight man, and he's got a good up-and-comer at his side in Zack Duke. Among the many veterans of NBC's Thursday night comedies, Amy Poehler is miscast as the bitchy trophy wife of Jenkins' character, but Ken Howard (Jack Donaghy's boss on the last few seasons of 30 Rock) picks her up as the other cuckolded new spouse. Winstead and a surprising Jessica Alba are also both good in non-comedic roles. Lynch finds herself in kind of a middle generation, doing her signature shtick about as effectively as ever.

More than just the sum of some funny performances, though, A.C.O.D. strikes a chord for taking an earnest stab at the complexity of the modern family. To get there, the movie must overcome the basic broadness of its setup, which finds the bickering exes coming back together in a way that's a lot less developed than in a similar consideration of this subject matter, like It's Complicated. However, it does get there, and "there" really manifests itself in little moments and details that underscore the many loose strands of family that are the legacy of divorce. Like the fact that there was a second wife between Carter's mother and his current stepmother -- named Inga, or something similarly Scandinavian -- who is name-checked a couple times (even though she never appears), and not always as a punchline. Like the fact that Trey's new in-laws are of Japanese heritage, and what special ingredient that will add to their dysfunctional clan. Like the fact that Trey and Carter have half-siblings under the age of 10, who are the almost-forgotten collateral damage of their own parents' prospective separation. Like the nice moment Carter has with his stepfather after he discovers his wife's infidelity, when Carter realizes this man who's not related to him may be the closest thing to a loving parent he really has.

A.C.O.D. effectively straddles the worlds of the more gag-oriented comedy it needs to be, and the more thoughtful character piece that it probably actually is. It's got enough shades of gray that we won't always like everything the good characters do, and we won't always hate the bad ones. However, the execution is sometimes a bit lacking. For example, Zicherman is smart to prevent Poehler's character from being merely the trophy wife caricature she spends 80 percent of her screen time being, but when he commits to her humanity from time to time, it's without quite enough heart. Some of this comes back to the inappropriate casting choice of Poehler, but it symbolizes the film's general problem of almost getting where it wants to be, more often than it actually gets there.

The true indication of what's on this film's mind is how it chooses to leave us in its closing credits, which I won't spoil here. It's an interesting choice that doesn't entirely work, but it does convince us that A.C.O.D. is going for something more than just a quick and cheap laugh.

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