At its gooey center, “I Do … Until I Don’t” is like vanilla cake. It is sweet, but generally there’s nothing that memorable about it. Writer/director Lake Bell’s examination of marriage as a tradition does little to go past the norm when it comes to the arguments about whether it is good or bad to tie any kind of knot.
What Bell has cooked up would be a sufficient serving of cinema if the debate were the only ingredient. What gives her recipe for romantic fun a flavor boost is a first-rate cast that includes Ed Helms, Mary Steenburgen, Paul Reiser, Amber Heard, Wyatt Cenac and Dolly Wells. Each adds his or her own brand of silly seasoning to the mixture, and the product that was once vanilla develops some richness.
The way Bell uses various combinations of characters keeps the story fresh and gives extra layers of depth, warmth and humor to a plot that has been a Hallmark movie staple.
Bell wrote, directed and stars in the film as Alice, the loving wife of Noah (Helms). Alice and Noah run a floundering business selling window blinds. Their good life begins to suffer because of financial problems with the business and failed efforts to start a family.
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There’s also a little tension because Alice believes Noah has feelings for her younger sister, Fanny (Heard), who lives a bohemian lifestyle with Zander (Cenac).
All of this comes out when British documentary filmmaker Vivian (Wells) comes to town looking for subjects for her latest film expose that will show how marriage is an archaic idea and couples should enter into contracts for just seven years.
Alice and Fanny agree to take part, along with Cybil (Steenburgen) and Harvey (Reiser), who have been married so long that an escape clause in a marriage contract might sound good.
Bell includes the making of the documentary as part of the story — a great strand that is energized by the way Wells pompously pushes her agenda to get the results she wants. Bell also shot the documentary footage, and it reflects all of the imagery that has become so familiar in the work of iffy documentarians.
Bell has created two movies that are as different as vanilla and chocolate. The main story has a workmanlike quality enlivened by a cast that gives extra depth to its characters. There’s nothing new about a jealous wife or a man reaching a midlife crisis except when actors like Bell and Reiser are behind the roles. Both have an instant likability that keeps them on the good side of an audience no matter what they do.
Helms can slip into manic bouts of comic hysteria, but Bell directs him to a very sweet performance while still allowing him to be funny. And she pulls Steenburgen — who has been known to fade into the background — to the front, making this one of her better performances in years.
Bell doesn’t take a lot of chances, which is why the movie originally looks to be vanilla. But her commitment to her story, her cast and a wicked sense of humor about documentaries sprinkle the film with some tasty moments. In this case, love means never having to say you’re sorry when the end result is sweet and funny.
‘I Do … Until I Don’t’
Rated R for sexual material, language.