In the Land of Women

As writer and director, Jonathan Kasdan (son of filmmaker Lawrence Kasdan, who's credited as producer) makes an impressive feature debut with “In the Land of Women,” a coming-of-age saga that feels more personal than a standard generic picture. The film is sort of “The Graduate” for Gen-Y, and not just because it posits a young, bright but confused man between a suffering mother and neglected wife and her rebellious daughter.

The tone of the two pictures is vastly different: Whereas Mike Nichols' seminal “The Graduate” is a comedy and occasionally a biting satire, Kasdan skews his story toward the terrain of melodrama and chick flick (perhaps too much so). But both works are zeitgeist films, reflective of their times, in the same way that Lawrence Kasdan's early films, “The Big Chill” and “Grand Canyon,” were a generation ago.

Comparisons are also inevitable between “Land of Women” and a slate of indie films coming out of Sundance, such as “Garden State,” with Zack Braff and Natalie Portman, and more recently “Rocket Science,” that Picturehouse will release later this year)

The protagonist Carter Webb is older (26) than Benjamin Braddock was (21) in “The Graduate,” though as played by Adam Brody, he feels younger (and he is younger in age) than Dustin Hoffman, who was 30 when he played a college grad.

A struggling writer, Carter is an amorous guy who needs to be in love. For as long as he could remember, hed been searching for the right one. Carter seems to have found everything he was looking for in Sophia (Elena Anaya), and we are led to believe that for a short while he was happy. Except that the first scene, a break-up, is heartbreaking. Reduced to tears, Carter is devastated when he's dumped by Sophia in a North Hollywood coffee shop.

Carter has fallen in love with a beautiful actress who may well be out of his league, but he has built his world around her. The last words the hopeless romantic thought hed hear were that Sophia was moving on with her life and career without him. We get the point: Ambitious femmes can be just as cruel and insensitive as men.

A wonderful serio-comic scene follows, when Carter goes home to break the news to his mother Agnes (JoBeth Williams, who was an ensemble member of Kasdan's “The Big Chill”) that Sophia has ended the relationship. More devastated than her son, Agnes goes on to recount and wallow in her own tales of a broken heart.

Agnes then confides in Carter that shes concerned his dementia-prone grandmother living in Michigan has taken a turn for the worse. What's a guy to do Heartbroken and depressed, Carter escapes Los Angeles and heads across the country to suburban Michigan to care for his ailing grandmother (Olympia Dukakis), an eccentric, complicated, and cantankerous woman. More sober and realistic than grandmothers are supposed to be, she offers Carter life (or rather death) lessons–a different perspective on existence and happiness.

Fortunately, Grandma is just the first of half a dozen women (hence the title) Carter is about to meet and influence their lives, perhaps more so than they influence his. Soon after his arrival, Carter stumbles into the lives of the family living directly across the street, Sarah Hardwicke (Meg Ryan), the mother of two daughters: Paige (Makenzie Vega), a precocious, effervescent eleven-year-old, and her older sister Lucy (Kristen Stewart), an angst-ridden teenager.

While Sarah faces her own personal crisis-she's diagnosed with breast cancer–Lucy wrestles with the fears that define her. Through his relationships with these women, as well as his Grandma, Carter begins to discover that what felt like the end is really just the beginning of his adventure.

In other words, by facing the deaths of those around him, Carter discovers the meaning of his own life. This is highlighted by the fact that Carter's poignant revelation is a result of the serendipitous way in which his life intersects with that of strangers at a most critical time.

As writer, Kasdan fils shows an assured hand, except for two mistakes (I think). First, he constructs Sarah's adulterous husband as a stereotype (borderline caricature). In general, the male roles are narrowly defined, and a party scene, in which Carter get into an argument and fight with one of Lucy's suitors is too familiar and rings fake.

Second, Kasdan resorts to clichs when it comes to Paige's precocious kid, who's given witty lines, and is staged to deliver them in the same way that child-actresses like Drew Barrymore, Quinn Cummings (“The Goodbye Girl”) and Pat Quinn (“An Unmarred Woman”) did in 1970s movies

That said, Kasdan avoids many pitfalls. We dread the idea that Carter's walks with the frightened and ailing Sarah, during which they get to know each other and at one point even hug, would lead to a sex scene a la “Graduate.” We are relieved that it doesn't happen.

Kasdan is also smart in not letting his anti (hero) succumb to the temptations of sleeping with Lucy, despite aggressive desire on her part and mild interest on his. There are no sex scenes in this film; only hints and desires.

Also impressive is the mature way in which he handles Sarah's husband. Sarah is aware of her husband affair, but there is no confrontation between the spouses; she simply accepts it. Ditto for the lack of arguments between Sarah and daughter Lucy, who's also aware of her father's illicit affair.

With all the praise, however, the tale is familiar, particularly in its second half and the series of resolutions that follow. But for a first film, “Land of Women” is extremely well directed. The narrative has a smooth flow, in scene after scene. As director, Kasdan does not punch witty lines, climactic encounters, or other big moments.

Kasdan also proves to be a good actors director, coaxing superlative work from his whole ensemble. In a supporting role, Meg Ryan shines as a woman who begins as a passive victim of breast cancer and then gradually shows determination to fight her illness. Ryan is given a number of emotionally touching scenes, and one in which she shaves her hair brings to mind a similar act by Elizabeth Perkins in “The Doctor.”

It's been a long time since Olympia Dukakis (who usually chews the scenery) has give an understated performance, and at least some credit must go to her helmer. As the rebellious daughter, the sexy and beautiful Kristen Stewart shows a lot of promise; she may become a leading lady soon.

Ultimately, though, “In the Land of Women” belongs to its single male lead, Carter, played with an astonishing emotional truth by Adam Brody (better known for his TV work in “O.C.”), who holds the entire picture on his slender frame. Brody is not a looker, to put it bluntly, but he's an appealingly compelling actor, endowed with a resonant voice. Brody is center-stage most of the time, and it's easy to believe why an aggregate of women, three generations apart, would trust him as a confidant and seek his company.

Cast

Carter Webb (Adam Brody)
Sarah Hardwicke (Meg Ryan)
Lucy Hardwicke (Kristen Stewart)
Paige Hardwicke (Makenzie Vega)
Grandmother (Olympia Dukakis)
Sophia (Elena Anaya)
Agnes (JoBeth Williams)

Credits

WIP

Written, directed by Jonathan Kasdan
Produced by Steve Golin and David Kanter
Executive producer: Lawrence Kasdan.
Director of photography: Paul Cameron.
Production designer: Sandy Cochrane.
Editor: Carol Littleton.