Great performances lead teen sex comedy to greatness

Robert Taylor

In the Land of Women may look like your usual teen sex comedy, but it’s not. At all.

It’s smarter, more focused and more honest than any such film in recent memory, with fascinating performances from its three leads and offbeat writing. But I probably shouldn’t say that, otherwise it will scare off the demographic it is attempting to woo. I wonder if the shots of Adam Brody having trouble in the shower and being beat up at a high school party were done specifically for the movie trailer to bring in the teen crowd.

Even the setup sounds like your typical teen comedy. After breaking up with an actress/model, soft-core porn writer Carter Webb (Adam Brody) moves to Michigan with his supposedly-dying grandmother and finds himself strangely attracted to the house across the street, specifically the woman and her teenage daughter who live there.

In The Land of Women

Starring Adam Brody, Meg Ryan and Kristen Stewart

Written and directed by Jon Kasdan

Released by Warner Independent Pictures

Stater rating (out of five): ????

If the set-up is clich‚, the movie strives to usurp our expectations at every turn. Meg Ryan plays the mother in question, who is attracted to Brody, but doesn’t have any time to do a Graduate-like striptease because she has problems of her own – specifically a secret (that I won’t reveal) that is treated in a more honest fashion than you will expect.

Kristen Stewart plays Ryan’s high school-aged daughter, a brooding artist who was “kind of dating” one of the football jocks in high school before he broke her heart. Instead of realizing that her best male friend is in love with her, she focuses on building a relationship with Brody’s character. Again, while it sounds like a clich‚ stunt from a warmed-over CW drama, it’s all in the execution.

And while the dialogue is crisp and the payoffs moving and unexpected, the movie ultimately succeeds because of the trio of lead performances.

Of the three, Ryan shines the brightest and steals almost every scene she is in. After taking three years off after a career implosion (three words: Against the Ropes), she makes her return with this role, and viewers realize just how many great performances they have missed out on over the past three years. Although she is primarily known as a perky blonde in romantic comedy, she’s got acting chops to spare and puts them on full display here.

Brody and Stewart are both impressive as well. Brody pulls off the very tricky task of having chemistry with both women without making Ryan look like a cradle robber or make himself look like a pedophile. Stewart makes her thankless role credible and sympathetic.

It’s not a perfect movie. There is a major subplot concerning Ryan’s husband, but the character is not given much screentime, making his character and, consequently, the entire subplot a throwaway.

And that high school scene mentioned earlier goes on much too long, so that by the time all the young characters are in the front lawn watching the high school jock beat up Brody, all that was missing was the football player screaming “Welcome to Ann Arbor, bitch!” to make it an utter clich‚.

And yet, there are so many things to love in the movie, big and small. Small things like Meg Ryan’s beautiful smile. Or Adam Brody’s way of dealing with his grandmother. Or kissing in the rain. This is writer/director Jon Kasdan’s first feature, though he has played parts on “Dawson’s Creek” and “Freaks and Geeks.” That’s fitting because the movie melds the best of both those shows in plot while creating its own personality and spirit.

There hasn’t been a genre movie this smart since Mean Girls and Legally Blonde hit multiplexes. Here’s hoping it catches on.

Contact ALL correspondent Robert Taylor at [email protected].