Stu Zicherman’s A.C.O.D. (written by Zicherman and Ben Karlin) suffers a bit from a familiar indie comedy malady: the conflicting desires to tell meaningful and even dark stories, while at the same time getting a studio pick-up and selling some tickets. The result, while funny at times and incisive at times, doesn’t successfully combine both.
The title stands for Adult Children Of Divorce, and the movie’s Exhibit A is Carter (Adam Scott). His parents Hugh (Richard Jenkins) and Melissa (Catherine O’Hara) split up, brutally, at Carter’s 9th birthday party, and the divorce was extended and corrosive. 20 years later, both parents have remarried–Hugh to Sondra (Amy Poehler) and Melissa to Gary (Ken Howard)–and although Carter considers himself successful and well-adjusted, with a successful restaurant and lovely long-term girlfriend Lauren (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), he still bears the scars.
One of Carter’s post-divorce skills is to serve as negotiator between his still-angry parents, and when his brother Trey (Clark Duke) announces his engagement, Carter has to get Hugh and Melissa to agree to attend the wedding despite the other’s presence, an act that has unintended consequences. That’s one of the events that kickstarts the story; the other is Carter’s discovery that the therapist he thought he was seeing as a pre-adolescent was actually writer/researcher Dr. Judith (Jane Lynch), who put his experiences (under an assumed name) into a bestselling book, and she now wants to do a sequel. Once he starts talking to her, he realizes that he has a distrust and a fear of commitment that have kept him in a holding pattern with Lauren for 4 years, and that he’s more fearful and bitter than he’s ever acknowledged.
This could have been the stuff of a fairly serious movie, or a comedy with a real edge, and at times, that’s what ACOD is. But it’s also a broad sitcom that doesn’t allow Hugh, Melissa and Dr. Judith to be more than cartoons, and builds to a strictly farcical conclusion where almost all the characters arrive at the same location at the same time, for no good reason at all. Some of this is funny–put Richard Jenkins and Catherine O’Hara at each other’s throats, and you’re going to get some laughs–but it doesn’t mix with the more realistic and emotional moments in the script, and the characters veer between acting like believable human beings and being punchlines. The movie’s schizophrenia is summed up by its last few minutes, which follows the farce with the kind of inconclusive non-ending that’s standard in indie movies, but jarring in a pure comedy (and which drew boos at the Sundance screening).
There’s a tremendous amount of talent involved here, so it’s all something of a waste. Scott does a good job of navigating his character’s moods (in a way, he has the easiest job, because his character is the most fleshed-out), but Winstead is no more than The Girl, Jessica Alba turns up for a plotline that starts off promisingly and then drops completely out of the movie, and Poehler has one scene with Scott toward the end to remind of us of the amazing chemistry between the two of them on Parks & Recreation and how well that show is written.
Zicherman, like most of this year’s Sundance comedy directors (but not all–Toy’s House is a welcome exception) has delivered a movie that looks even less appealing than a typical single-camera network sitcom (Karlin, a former Daily Show senior writer, now works on Modern Family, a show that handles varied tones better than the movie and looks less perfunctory while doing it). The photography and musical score are completely undistinctive
ACOD, unable to decide whether to push its yuks or its insights, ends up shortchanging both.
But for one unfortunately critical element, Logan and Noah Miller’s Sweetwater (the brothers rewrote a script originally by Andrew McKenzie) is a highly enjoyable darkly comic western, as subsumed in stylized movie traditions (and their subversion) as a Tarantino movie, but without Tarantino’s post-modern stew of references.
Sweetwater is your basic frontier town, half-way to Santa Fe, with a DNA that’s part spaghetti western, part Deadwood. Although there’s a token sheriff, the town is run by psychotic self-styled “prophet” Josiah (Jason Isaacs), who has multiple wives and who murders and commits other awful crimes wantonly in the name of God. In the opening scene, Josiah kills two of the wrong people, a pair who are (somewhat unlikely) relations of the Governor. That prompts the very colorful Sheriff Jackson (Ed Harris) to come to town in his baby-blue coat and with his fondness for what wasn’t yet called interpretive dance, as special emissary of the Governor to solve the disappearances. The other central character is Sarah (January Jones), a former prostitute now married to farmer Miguel (Edward Noriega), who commits the twin sins of being Mexican and getting in the Prophet’s way.
Clearly, these people are on a collision course, but the Millers give their characters (and minor ones like a corrupt banker played by Stephen Root) room to breathe. Harris has himself a fine old time as the flamboyant lawman, and then in the movie’s second half, Sarah, who had previously been a standard flinty western heroine, becomes a character out of Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, and Jones seizes the chance to blow away her proper, repressed Betty Draper image.
The only problem is the Prophet Josiah–not because there’s anything wrong with Isaacs’ performance, but because the character of a homicidal, crazy, ranting preacher has become such a staple of both historical and modern thrillers (a recent example was the Michael Parks character in Kevin Smith’s Red State). We see everything Josiah does coming a mile away, and he’s simply not an original conception in the way the Sheriff and Sarah are.
Sweetwater is still tense and loquaciously humorous, in a style that will remind some of the Coens’ True Grit. The filmmaking is also Coen-like in its care and love for detail. The extremely spare and effective production design by Waldemar Kalinowski and cinematography by Brad Shield are both notable, and this is a movie where costume design (by Hala Bahmet) is a co-star in itself, with Harris’ outfit and a particular dress worn by Jones going a long way to establish both their characters.
If Sweetwater had been a little more inventive in its choice of villain, it could have been a minor classic. As it is, the movie is still an entertaining showcase for its spellbinding actors and the filmmakers behind them.