Film Review | Stuck in Love

Marco Attard opts for this lukewarm rom-com about struggling writers and their angst-ridden progeny in favour of the latest action blockbuster... but then wishes he hadn't.

Livin' la vida letteraria: Bill Borgens (Greg Kinnear) and co-star Lawn Chair (as itself), two protagonists stuck in the mire that is love.
Livin' la vida letteraria: Bill Borgens (Greg Kinnear) and co-star Lawn Chair (as itself), two protagonists stuck in the mire that is love.

I want to start this review with a spot of heart-to-heart.

As my too-short tenure as this fine newspaper's film critic meets an end (Teodor Reljic takes this post back this week, dear readers) I find myself worrying whether I'm stuck as a movie viewer, if not a writer. After all, judging from past MaltaToday reviews, one'd be forgiven for thinking all this "Marco Attard" character watches is various degrees of action and science fiction mediocrity.

Thus I knew I had to make a tough decision between the two films that came out in this particular week. On one hand was '2 Guns', a daft, comic-book-based tribute to the gun 'n' fun films of the late 80s and early 90s; on the other was 'Stuck in Love', a film the Internet Movie Database says is about "an acclaimed writer, his ex-wife and their teenaged children com[ing] to terms with the complexities of love in all its forms over the course of one tumultuous year".

I wish I'd watched 2 Guns.

At first glance there's nothing technically wrong with this particular slice of independent cinema, an apparently semi-autobiographical first effort from writer-director Josh Boone.

Greg Kinnear is fine as Bill Borgens, an apparently successful writer stuck in a deep funk following a messy divorce from his wife, Erica (an equally fine Jennifer Connelly).

In-between spending his days flitting back and forth stalking his ex, sleeping with an attractive, if married, neighbour (Kirsten Dunst) and generally mooching around his beach house, Bill worries his 16-year old son Rusty (Nat Wolff) is not getting enough life experience, while 19-year old daughter Samantha (Lily Collins) gets, perhaps, a bit too much.

And so it goes.

The film opens on Thanksgiving and ends on Thanksgiving, and by now you can easily guess what happens throughout the 364 days in between. A hint: nothing you haven't watched in other romance-family dramas.

A story about writers' malaise and struggles - both Borgens siblings also happen to be scribblers - makes a rather interesting story, in the right hands.

The 'right hands' cliché is important, since writing is as crushingly dull as tasks can be. One can get all misty eyed about the joys of creativity, but at the end of the day, finishing off any piece of art is 99% nose-to-the-grindstone labour, where the only interesting element is the tipple of choice (mine is Kraken Rum, thanks for asking).

Just as well that very little of writing takes place in Stuck in Love, despite all the talk that goes on about it.

Characters might drop names of the Flannery O'Connor and Raymond Carver variety, literary discussions take place around dinner tables and fancy restaurants, and we're constantly reminded of how good a writer Bill (who can afford the work-free bohemian lifestyle for at least three years in a beach town so idyllic it verges on exaggerated caricature) and his sprogs are, but we hardly ever see the sweating in front of a keyboard.

Then again, writers are human beings like everyone else, which explains why the story has Rusty emerge from his shell, fall in love and (no spoiler here) have his heart broken by fellow student Kate (Liana Liberato), a girl who might have - wait for it - problems of some sort. Or why Samantha's promiscuity and cynicism melt away like an ice cube under scorching August heat through the affections of persistent nice guy Lou (Logan Lerman).

Not to mention how Bill's failure to get over Erica reveals - wait for it! - an untold secret!  

Again, on paper there's nothing too wrong with the above, and its presentation is not even that bad. The performers are likeable, it's all nicely shot around attractive coastal North Carolina locales, and the contemporary indie-rock soundtrack rounds things off pleasantly.

But then again it's all just... mediocre. There might be a buffet of stories at play here, but, to evoke a food metaphor of the kind writers are generally encouraged to avoid, its all amounts to the cinematic equivalent of boiled mutton and veg.

It might all be perfectly edible, but it simply lacks in variety and spice. Beat by beat, you can tell exactly when and how the plot will swerve, be it the moment when Samantha and Lou kiss to the tune of Elliott Smith's 'Between the Bars', the failure of Bill's one date with a woman that's not his wife or the sexy neighbour, or the zero surprises found in the closing Thanksgiving scene.

And as Stuck in Love ends its lurch towards the credits, all one feels is relief, as if it were far longer than its scant 97-minute running time.

The matter of a film overstaying even a short welcome brings to mind 'Yi Yi' (aka A One and a Two, released in 2000), a thematically similar Edward Yang piece about a Taiwanese family and its various degrees of upper-middle-class emotional malaise. Clocking at 173 minutes in length and replete with long, luxuriant shots of its protagonists and their surrounding scenery, Yi Yi never feels lengthy, and instead brims with both aching melancholy and naturalistic charm.

In contrast Stuck in Love feels meaningless, hardly even worth watching as a date movie. After all, do you really want to waste your (potential) lover's time? Consider that question carefully. They will never get those 97 minutes back, and neither will you.

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