Directed by: Josh Boone; Runtime: 97 minutes
Josh Boone's Stuck in Love revolves around how life experience shapes the way we look at and interpret the world, so it's fitting that the story would begin and end on the same holiday, showing how a family -- comprised mostly of writers -- have changed their perspectives over a year's time. Bookended by scenes of fixing Thanksgiving dinner with noticeable differences in how they do things, we're treated to a story of how relationships lost and rediscovered weigh on our consciousness while attempting to move forward, and how these experiences aren't something easily abandoned with time. Staleness and blunt sentimental catharsis populate Boone's meandering voyage through flirtation, divorce, and coping with terminal illness, as this family breaks down the walls of their emotional comfort zones in unsurprising ways. The richness of the characters and the performances that give them life elevate this dramedy beyond the mundane, though, opening the door for genuine expressiveness at certain moments.
Currently experiencing the later stages of divorce where he's expected to move on and, sure, potentially get remarried, semi-famous author William Borgens (Greg Kinnear, Little Miss Sunshine) finds it difficult to let go of his ex-wife, Erica (Jennifer Connely, Requiem for a Dream), due to their history and his "fated" connection to her. Since the circumstances of their split weren't exactly conventional due to Erica's involvement with another man, it created a rift with their burgeoning writer children: Rusty (Nat Wolff, Admission), their younger son who's dealing with crushes and popularity in high-school, has weathered the ordeal, but their brainy and sexually promiscuous college-aged daughter, Samantha (Lily Collins, Mirror Mirror), still hasn't forgiven her mother. Stuck in Love becomes all about how the Borgens handle new relationships and experiences post-divorce, from Rusty's first encounters with a flawed damsel in distress (Liana Liberato, Erased) to the nice guy, Lou (Logan Lerman, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, attempting to crack Samantha's cynical exterior. While Bill's children explore things beyond their comfort zone, can -- or should -- he finally move on, too?
Excluding the mother, every member of the Borgens family are either aspiring or accomplished writers, which inherently makes Stuck in Love about internalized literary-minded people who use their work as an outlet for distress. While getting intimately involved with three different creatives, who share common experiences and professional goals, does offer some interest by allowing the family an easy way to talk shop and empathize, writer/director Boone also inescapably limits the film's versatility by doing so. Professional jealousy, frustration, and success rely on Rusty and Sam being the ambitious children of a successful author, despite Boone's conscientious script thinking a few steps ahead to legitimize their connections. It forces the audience to roll with the explanation that the apple doesn't fall far from the tree, but despite pseudonyms and phone call cameos from Stephen King designed to convince otherwise, the film conveniently uses this hereditary talent for effortless drama, robbing the Borgens' story of some authenticity.
There's more to Stuck in Love's characters than their talent with words, though. While their creative endeavors never leave the spotlight -- Sam's publishing an autobiographical book; Rusty's flirtation with his crush sparks over a poem; Bill can't write due to his obsession with Erica -- it's also simply about how an intelligent, emotionally-convoluted family gets "unstuck" out of the individual ruts created by their family's divorce, leading everyone to push themselves through unusual decisions. Boone's partly-autobiographical story isn't prone to subtlety, where themes involving drug addiction, terminal illness, and infidelity lead to anticipated emotional outcomes condensed into one family's world. That said, the sharply-written reactions from the characters leave those emotional arcs feeling more poignant than cliched, building a foundation for their perspectives as writers as they explore the newness of falling for someone, as well as an inability to let go when the time's right. It's unreservedly expressive without being overtly comedic, making it hard to deny the somewhat insistent tenderness in Boone's depiction of parental squabbles and necessary makeovers.
An incredibly talented cast works to justify that they've got the type of mental headspace of writers with something to say, taking up Boone's own way with words and lending some emotive honesty to their occasionally wry dialogue. Greg Kinnear and Jennifer Connelly offer nuanced, persuasive renditions of their expected talents as the forlorn ex-spouses, while a quirky and honest bit of comic relief from Kristen Bell enlivens Kinnear's persona as a down-the-street housewife (and occasional sex buddy) who cares for Bill's well-being. The real victors are their kids, though: Nat Wolff convincingly handles the territory of a socially uninvolved high-schooler who gets wrapped up with a party girl, the area where most of the film's autobiographical content resides, while Lily Collins embraces the mental state of a confidently cynical, promiscuous college student with lifted emotional barriers and unyielding spite for her mother. Collins shares a great rapport with The Perks of Being a Wallflower's Logan Lerman, solidly realizing the nice-guy literature student chipping away at Samantha's harsh exterior.
Once everything comes full-circle at the next year's Thanksgiving dinner, however, Stuck in Love leaves one thinking about how the Borgens' year of growth plays out, and how everything wraps up in this otherwise respectable domestic dramedy. Plenty of monumental things happen in that time period for the family to ponder, while director Boone maintains the illusion of time passing as they weather their various hardships in different ways: Samantha's cynicism, Rusty's sensitivity, and Bill's enduring affection for his wife. Yet, it's hard not to feel frustrated with the surprisingly upbeat chain of resolutions to their various issues that all happen to fold into that very day, ending with a schmaltzy bow tied at the end. For a film with such casually authentic characters like the Borgens experiencing a complex emotional tangle, it seems like the final chapter to this indie cares more about pleasing crowds than digging its heels in with the family's emotional state.
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