16 November 2009 | EUyeshima
Off-Kilter Elements Keeps Things Afloat in Adrienne Shelly's Swan Song as a Screenwriter
It's been a full two decades since Meg Ryan emerged from a series of background girlfriend roles to become America's Sweetheart in 1989's "When Harry Met Sally
", but in this strangely conceived 2009 comedy, she still has that undeniable twinkle in spite of all the age-defying cosmetic alterations to her face. The screenplay is the last work of the late actress Adrienne Shelly, who wrote, directed, and co-starred in 2007's agreeably idiosyncratic "Waitress", and what they have in common is her supple dexterity in balancing the off-kilter elements of her stories into something deeper. This time, she takes a darker, less whimsical path in exposing the insidious nature of a marriage that has dissipated from a lack of communication. Her "Waitress" co-star Cheryl Hines ("Curb Your Enthusiasm") takes the helm in her directorial debut, and her lack of experience may attribute to the fact that it feels more like a filmed stage play despite Nancy Schreiber's expert cinematography.
The brief story focuses on married couple, Louise and Ian, on a day when they unexpectedly cross paths at their bucolic vacation home. A high-powered fortyish attorney, she comes home to find her house showered romantically with rose petals and Ian writing a Dear Jane letter to her. He has decided after thirteen years of marriage that he wants a divorce, so he can rendezvous with his 24-year-old girlfriend Sarah in Paris. Unwilling to accept that her marriage has gone kaput, Louise inadvertently knocks him out with a flower pot and takes advantage of his unconsciousness in order to duct tape him to a chair until he relents. This is the beginning of a roundelay in which they spar about the merits of their marriage. Ian spends most of the 84-minute running time stuck on the toilet as he faces one humiliation after another. Even though Louise exhibits vaguely sociopathic behavior, she does not represent the only threat to Ian.
There is a nasty twist to the story in the form of an interloper that turns their vituperative cat-and-mouse game into a game of survival. The open ending doesn't quite satisfy, although the implications that it raises lends texture to what has gone on before. Ryan acquits herself well as Louise, and although it's not remarkable work, it shows that the actress could thrive into middle-age with her fizzy spirit intact. She manages to give heart to the tenacious hold her character has on her flailing marriage. In a welcome big-screen return as Ian, Timothy Hutton does what he can under a lot of duct tape in a mostly passive role with moments of vented exasperation, while Kristin Bell ("Forgetting Sarah Marshall") shows surprising grit as Sarah, especially toward the end when the women grapple on the bathroom floor. Justin Long provides a menacing edge to the smallish role of the lawn-mowing low-life. More than Hines' workmanlike direction, Shelly's somewhat uneven screenplay offers enough dark elements to make the contrived set-up worth accepting for the sake of the unfolding story she wanted to tell.