In the Land of Women begins with the sort of tragedy that comes in the second act of most lifetime movies. The very sincere, very sweet Carter (Adam Brody) is dumped by his girlfriend, the painfully lovely French-born actress Sophia (Elena Anaya). Indeed, the dumping is captured in exquisite close-up, her eyes misted and cheeks flushed. She so doesn’t want to hurt Carter, but oh, she so doesn’t want to be in a relationship with him either.
Carter is devastated, which you can tell when he reaches into his pocket and pulls out his cigarettes, then rages at himself, very briefly, blaming himself for Sophie’s loss of interest: “You pathetic faggot,” he whimpers, then heads off to see his mom (JoBeth Williams, on screen for about four minutes). He finds her in tears as well, as she’s just finished a phone call with her mother, Phyllis (Olympia Dukakis). Grandma, Carter learns, believes she is dying. This might give someone who is not Carter pause, in the sense that perhaps his own situation is not the center of the universe. But he takes his mother’s upset and her mother’s ailing as an opportunity, offering to go to look after her for a few weeks. It’ll be good to get out of L.A., he reasons. He can work on his screenplay, the one he’s been writing for the last 15 years, about his life in high school.
And so Carter makes his way to the strange land of suburban Michigan, where he finds women wise and frightening, lovely and stunningly clichéd. His arrival doesn’t so much impress Phyllis, one of those wonderfully wise if slightly dottering grandmothers who inhabit movies, as it seems to her yet another sign of her imminent demise. Carter makes feeble efforts to mollify, then argue with, her worries, but she knows better, instructing him as to procedure when he finds her dead—as he inevitably will. In the meantime, he wears his high school t-shirts (Dylan, Zep, Genesis), makes a couple of meals for Phyllis, looks perplexed by the sheer numbers of pills she’s supposed to take, and tries to keep quiet the intermittent phone call from his director back in L.A. As Carter pays rent by writing “premium softcore porn,” he tries to hide this from his grandmother, telling her he writes children’s books instead. The device is both too cute and too smug (it occasions a couple of jokes as he’s discussing a porn babe’s “motivation” in grandma’s house), and leaves Carter looking like he lies to those closest to him as a matter of course.
Despite his initial sense of mission, Carter doesn’t actually spend much time with his grandmother. Rather, he is distracted by her neighbors, the enchanting Sarah (Meg Ryan) and her briefly mystifying daughter Lucy (Kristen Stewart). It helps that their bland husband/dad, Nelson (Clark Gregg) is oddly absent even when he’s in a scene, so that Carter—fantastically combining charm, brilliance, and sensitivity—appears the ideal boy for all the girls. For some reason, they gravitate to him, sharing confidences and looking to him for an emotional support that, frankly, looks quite beyond this shallow L.A. writer-boy. The film seems caught between making fun of his self-absorption (he insists he’s a great listener while demonstrating that he is not) and believing in him as much as he does (he says his soppy letters to Sophie were the “best thing I ever wrote,” and the movie lets it stand, going so far as to have him write a soppy letter to Sarah that makes her cry, with a mixed sense of loss and happiness).
The truth is, Carter’s adventures in the land of women are not about the women at all. They are all about him. Even when he learns that Sarah has breast cancer, he’s educated in how to live his own life. (This while she focuses on the effects on her children, soothing the wholly alarmed and angry Lucy, “Even if it is something, it could be nothing.”) Instead of focusing on her pain, he’s caught up in his own—partly seduced by her generosity and warmth and vulnerability, partly seduced by Lucy’s lithe charms, and still pining over Sophie, whose poster image looms in a Gap Store window when he accompanies Lucy and her precocious little sister Paige (Makenzie Vega) to the movies.
Ah, poor poor Carter. Will he emerge strengthened or diminished by his encounters in this faraway land? Will he learn to share himself in the ways he supposes the women share themselves with him? Will he ever take responsibility for himself, let alone for someone else? It appears that he’ll have to move out of this land, move on to the land of his own imagining, before he’ll know. While he endures the usual sorts of soap touchstones, they’re all someone else’s—disease, adultery, teenage crush, death, rain on cue, and a loutish quarterback (this would be Lucy’s completely unconvincing boyfriend—she’s not nearly established to be this lunkhead’s girlfriend). Carter stands by and offers commentary, barely snarky, I-know-it’s-a-script asides that make him seem both too cute and too smug, just like his movie.