Modernism in the face of post-modernism.
Yes, it’s a heady (and obnoxious) way to start off a review of a romantic comedy, but Lake Bell’s I Do…Until I Don’t is not your traditional romantic comedy. Much more than its genre trappings, the movie wisely uses its runtime and tropes to examine the conflict between the growing movement of individualism versus the innate desire for companionship and love, and how those two things aren’t entirely mutually exclusive.
But nobody wants to watch a sermon, so the two sides of this debate are in the forms of a documentary filmmaker named Vivian (Dolly Wells), and the subjects she’s documenting. Attempting to craft a documentary that makes the case that marriage should be a seven-year contract with the option to renew, it’s clear that her work is skewed towards the idea that monogamy is unrealistic and foolish. Through this, she follows three couples. Our main couple, Alice (Lake Bell) and Noah (Ed Helms), are the owners of a failing business; after Alice put her dreams to the side due to her marriage, she finds solace in her interactions with Vivian, who is her idol. Here is the meat of the film, as this idealistic but disillusioned young woman is hit with the ever-changing world and manipulated by Vivian as the cracks in Alice and Noah’s marriage is amplified for the camera. Secondarily comes Alice’s sister Fanny (Amber Heard) who is in a polyamorous relationship with Zander (Wyatt Cenac), and this couple finds their free-loving ways tested through Vivian’s meddling and their own ever-changing ideals about their relationship. Offering a nice counter-point to the primary story and a charming tale of young love in its own right, these two stories alone would have made for a compact and entertaining story.
The problems with I Do…Until I Don’t start with the third and final couple observed by Vivian, the long-run passionless marriage of Cybil (Mary Steenburgen) and Harvey (Paul Reiser). While these two actors do a wonderful job and their story is sweet and honest (reminding me slightly of this year’s The Lovers with less cynicism), Cybil and Harvey’s disconnect from the other two stories makes the film feel disjoined, and every time the camera goes to them, it feels forced. Even more so when all three couples meet up by the end of the film by sheer coincidence, and Cybil and Harvey become the center of the traditional rom-com ‘race to the big event’ climax, the movie’s seams really start to show.
Genre tropes aren’t necessarily a bad thing, but when they’re done this callously, it contrasts with the care that’s been put into the rest of the film. That said, it’s a testament to Bell’s wonderful writing and careful direction that even through these tropes, I was still smiling. And that’s the main takeaway from this film. Even when it’s stuck in the trappings of a more marketable and easy to swallow film, the talent and craft shines through like a beam of sunshine cracking open the void.
Much like in her first film, In a World…, Bell seems trapped by the kinds of films she’s supposed to be making. Her talent as an artist is made for much more complicated and difficult to market films than this, and I sincerely hope she has the opportunity to just make these wonderful theses on the state of the world that have come through in the subtext of her two films.
As it stands, I Do…Until I Don’t should sit at the bottom end of a wonderful career for Bell, who knows how to make her audience laugh, empathize, and cheer with glee. She’s making crowd-pleasing, unabashedly romantic films with a brain, and in an age where cynicism and grime have suffocated the multiplex, it’s lovely that filmmakers like her are making movies where the underlying theme is joy. With films like The Big Sick and Brigsby Bear in theaters now as well as this film, it’s heartening to see that sentimentality and the more stuffy unironic way of life is being celebrated in such a way. Just because Bell’s film doesn’t reach the glorious heights of those films doesn’t mean her name won’t be at the top of one of them in the next few years. In fact, I expect it. She just needs to break out of her box. She’s pounding on the walls. Now it’s time for her to shatter the glass.
I Do…Until I Don’t gets 7/10 Uncomfortable Documentary Close-Ups