To Clear His Head
Adam Scott, Richard Jenkins, Catharine O'Hara, Amy Poehler, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Clark Duke, Ken Howard, Jessica Alba, Jane Lynch, Valarie Tian, Sarah Burns
(Black Bear Pictures)
US theatrical: 4 Oct 2013 (Limited release)
It must have seemed like a great idea. Get a bunch of winsome TV actors together, veterans of such luminous comic fare as The Office, Parks & Recreation, and 30 Rock, set them all against one another in a perfectly farcical setting about modern relationships and the fallout from bitter divorce proceedings, and let the corn start popping. The problem is no one seems to have thought terribly hard about writing a clever, riotous script to go along with all that thespian talent. The result—A.C.O.D.—is a lukewarm comedy, tentative and often unsure of itself. You’re hoping for a scalding bath of frolicking fun, but instead you get a sink full of barely tepid water.
This isn’t for lack of apparent effort. Writer-director Stu Zicherman and co-writer Ben Karlin crowd the film’s 88 minutes with a cavalcade of characters and antic relationships. Carter (Adam Scott) is a reasonably successful restaurant owner with a sweetly caring girlfriend, Lauren (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). He is also the eldest son of a still seething divorced couple, Hugh (Richard Jenkins) and Melissa (Catharine O’Hara), both of whom have remarried, he to the formidable Sondra (Amy Poehler), she to the sweetly lunky Gary (Ken Howard). When Carter’s younger brother, Trey (Clark Duke), decides to spontaneously propose to his girlfriend of four months, Kieko (Valarie Tian), it sends Carter, always the peacekeeper in the family, into a spiral of complication. His parents despise each other so much that they haven’t seen one another in 20 years.
In an attempt to clear his head, Carter consults with Dr. Judith (Jane Lynch), a woman he believed to be his therapist in his childhood, when his parents were busy suing and counter-suing one another. In reality, she was conducting research interviews with him for a book she was writing about the effects of divorce on young children. Inspired by his return, Dr. Judith decides to write a follow-up book, detailing the lives of the children she first interviewed, now as grown adults. In a bold move, Carter tricks his parents into meeting him for dinner, then absconds, leaving them to try to work out their differences themselves. The meeting goes entirely too well, and to his eternal horror (a moment gleefully captured in the film’s promo poster), his parents start hooking up with one another again.
The plot continues on in this sort of disheveled manner, a series of events and reactions that don’t quite lead anywhere. Zicherman, who reports that A.C.O.D. is at least somewhat autobiographical, does have a sense of pacing for his ensemble. Despite its perversely intricate schematic, A.C.O.D. doesn’t drag with needless side stories. As a comedy, however, it never goes for the jugular. Though it offers a steady stream of solid moments (“I love you like a son,” Hugh tells Carter at one point, with an affecting mix of earnestness and artifice), the film builds little comic tension or anticipation. Instead, we grind along, watching gifted comic actors dutifully pour themselves into meandering scenes that seem essentially purposeless.
As a writer, Zicherman consistently makes what might be called nearsighted choices. To offer but one example, he chooses not to show us any more of the reconciliation dinner between Hugh and Melissa after Carter leaves. This scene sets up the revelation joke when they get back together, but for this minor laugh, Zicherman could have given us some necessary insight into how this couple, so angry and acrimonious, started re-connecting.
To make matters worse, the director shoots for an enigmatic ending that feels almost entirely unearned. The conclusions seem hastily drawn, and we’re no closer to getting an understanding of these people than when we started. It’s all too much a burden for poor Adam Scott to bear. He’s a talented, charismatic actor—sort of a poor man’s Paul Rudd without the improv chops—but he can only carry so much of the film. For most of A.C.O.D., much like Carter, he’s pretty much out there on his own.