"In the Land of Women" is to Michigan what "Garden State" was to New Jersey - a smart and bittersweet romantic comedy about a twentysomething who reaches an early-life crisis, returns home from Los Angeles, and deals with depression, death and an unexpected romance. All of it set to a whimsical, killer hipster soundtrack.
Adam Brody from "The O.C." has the Zach Braff role here as the tousle-haired, aw-shucks, perpetually bemused guy who seems to be permanently squinting against the bright sunshine and overwhelming superficiality of Los Angeles. Braff's character flew home to Jersey for his mother's funeral; Brody's Carter Webb flies home to suburban Michigan because his actress girlfriend has dumped him and his grandmother is deteriorating rapidly and needs someone to look after her.
Olympia Dukakis plays the crabby-crazy Movie Grandma role to the hilt. At first she nearly swallows up the slightly built Brody, who has a thin voice and is so low-key he looks and sounds like a stagehand that wandered in front of the camera. But Brody's understated performance serves him well, counterbalancing the showier roles given to the Dukakis character and to the other major characters, all female.
Carter writes scripts for soft-core movies that show up on premium cable channels late at night. (He tells Grandma he writes children's books.) Now that he's back home, perhaps he can flip open the laptop and write something of substance. At least that's the plan, but with his heart stinging and his grandmother driving him batty, Carter is open to distractions - and there they are, directly across the street. Women.
Sarah Hardwicke (Meg Ryan) is a beautiful and meticulous housewife who seems to have it all, from the marriage to the daughters to the fun dog to the pristine furnishings and the finely trimmed lawns. She welcomes Carter to the neighborhood with a plate of Fig Newtons, which she readily admits were placed on the plate to give the illusion of being homemade, and they strike up an immediate friendship cemented by long walks through tree-lined streets and lush, emerald-green parks.
The Sarah-Carter relationship is more of a secretive, intimate friendship than a romance, though they're undeniably attracted to each other, with Carter marveling at Sarah's maturity and lack of pretense, and Sarah reveling in the fact that Carter looks at her in a way her husband hasn't in many years. They're not sure where it's going to lead, but they're getting to that point where they're thinking about each other when they wake up in the morning.
In the meantime, with Sarah's encouragement, Carter also strikes up a friendship with Sarah's older daughter, Lucy (Kristen Stewart). Wearing vintage rock band T-shirts and low-slung jeans that always leave about 4 inches of dangerous skin between denim and cotton, puffing on cigarettes and jumping into the boyfriend's muscle car, Lucy hates her mother, tolerates her precocious younger sister and is developing a mad crush on Carter, who is dividing his time among three generations of women.
To the credit of writer-director Jonathan Kasdan (son of Lawrence Kasdan of "The Big Chill," "Body Heat," "Grand Canyon" et al.), there's not a moment when the movie deteriorates into some leering romp about a mother-daughter-Carter love triangle. Lip-locking lapses aside, Carter's relationships with Sarah and with Lucy are rooted in the sharing of ideas and dreams and disappointments and fears.
Kasdan knows how to sprinkle in the comedy when the drama gets too heavy. When Carter accompanies Lucy to a high school party so she can make her jock ex-boyfriend jealous, the result is a conscious tip of the hat to all those John Hughes movies that had big climactic scenes at parties just like this one. Moments like this are welcomed because at least one main character in this movie is very sick and might not make it, and there will be many scenes when people hug through tears.
At times the film seems almost too carefully crafted and audience-friendly, with perhaps one too many neatly wrapped resolutions. Carter's coda in particular feels tacked on. Still, we share Kasdan's affection for these characters. One can understand how Carter becomes enamored with the women across the street, and why they're receptive to him.