Provocative documentarian Vivian Prudeck (Dolly Wells), fresh off of her Helsinki Film Festival-selected Tween Jungle, has a bone to pick. This time, she’s setting her acerbic sights on the institute of marriage, and she’s going against it with both guns blazing John Woo-style. Her seven-year marriage has recently dissolved, and she’s looking to make society see it her way in her upcoming documentary outlining her plan to redefine marriage.
And what better way to start than traveling to Vero Beach, Florida, the US city with the highest divorce rate (according to her studies)? She’s making a case for marriage being a seven-year agreement with an option to renew, and she’s looking for some like-minded couples to fit her narrative. The couples she finds – or the couples who find her – might be a little outside the box she’s created, but she’s ready to pay, cajole, seduce, bribe, or entrap them for the best footage, regardless of the ethics or consequences.
Lest you wonder, Vivian is not the central character of I Do… Until I Don’t. She’s the Warner Bros. Tasmanian Devil, whirling and sputtering with the intent of taking her marital frustrations out on her documentary’s participants, all of whom come from varying social and economic strata. Through Vivian’s eyes, we see what writer/director/actor Lake Bell seeks to satirize about adult relationships, especially when it comes from being “me” and not “we.”
Vivian is societal pressure. She is every wish unfulfilled. She is that annoying voice in the back of your head which keeps repeating, “You failed.” She is the hot breath on the back of your neck telling you to give up and give in. And this is all in the space of her limited screentime, most of which is given to the couples she’s found to participate in her little revenge fantasy.
Bell’s conflicts, as written, come off as very petty and reality TV-like, even when Vivian’s camera’s not rolling. Alice (Bell) is in a ho-hum marriage with window treatment salesman Noah (Ed Helms), but she starts to make horrible allegations in an effort to seem interesting to Vivian. She accuses her husband of wanting to sleep with her attractive sister Fanny (Amber Heard), a patchouli-smelling hippie-type in a self-professed open relationship with longtime partner Zander (Wayne Cenac). Even Fanny and Zander (a nod to Ingmar Bergman?) aren’t without their issues, as the open relationship pretense they’ve been trying to keep up is slowly disintegrating.
Rounding off Bell’s jabs at life are Harvey (Paul Reiser) and Cybil (Mary Steenburgen), an older couple who seem to be more roommates than married to each other. Harvey’s just gotten a motorcycle, suffering from an apparent midlife crisis, according to Cybil. Really, Harvey’s suffering from a lack of Cybil’s attention, as she seems to spend more time doing real estate deals and not bothering to give Harvey any affection, even on his birthday. Instead, she gives him a gift certificate to the local massage parlor, which speaks volumes about where they are in their relationship. Although Bell has written Cybil as a one-note character who spends the whole movie sniping at everyone, Steenburgen plays her gleefully bitchy, owning her life and surroundings as hostilely as possible.
Here’s the thing: everyone’s normal, except no one’s really looking out for the other. Everyone’s obsessed with themselves instead of fighting life – and Vivian – as a unit. I Do… Until I Don’t is a long journey to the “we” out of “me,” and it’s hard to find a sympathetic character at first. Bell directs everyone to appropriate meekness or bitch levels, keeping Wells as the highest-strung of the chorus. Wells gives Vivian a toxicity which trickles down to everyone involved, with Bell’s Alice turning from sweet and unassuming to pointedly antagonistic and near-horrible. Helms plays the stalwart Noah commendably well, being the man who’s working hard for his goals and trying to bring Alice along.
Ultimately, the choice falls to each person to give into societal, family, and media pressure or not. How they arrive at their conclusions only highlights the inherent sweetness of each relationship and the unwelcome intrusion of Vivian’s camera and agenda. Bell’s screenplay tends to oversimplify and caricaturize, making I Do… Until I Don’t more of a small-scale slapstick parody of life itself in the vein of a Zucker Brothers movie (The Naked Gun, Airplane!, etc.). If you really need to see this this comedic bent hammered home, look at the ludicrous turn of events which introduces Alice to Harvey and how the term “cupping” gets horribly misunderstood. It’s an odd mishmash of parody and satire, striking a bit of an uneven tone, but eventually finding its footing and coming to end on its own terms.
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