The manipulative British filmmaker seems to have come to the right place. Fresh from her own bitter breakup, Vivian (Dolly Wells) arrives in Florida in search of couples who are about to split. She has an assistant/cameraperson, Mel (Connie Shin), and a thesis: Marriage should last for only seven years, with an option to renew.
Vivian also has a title for her planned film on the topic: I Do… Until I Don’t. That title also belongs, of course, to the movie about the film. It’s the second writer-director-star vehicle for Lake Bell, whose 2013 film In a World … is one of the sharpest Hollywood comedies of the decade. This follow-up has its moments but is considerably less winning.
Bell plays Alice, whose union with Noah (Ed Helms) is beset by two of the big marital perils: money and procreation. The couple’s blinds store is on the verge of bankruptcy, and four years of attempted baby-making has not yielded a child. (Bell, mother of two preschoolers, has packed the movie with pregnancy and child-rearing material.) A fan of Vivian’s previous documentary, Tween Jungle, Alice is eager to be in the next one. Noah is not, but agrees when he is led to believe, fraudulently, that the couple will be paid to participate.
As a contrast to Alice and Noah’s bourgeois quagmire, Vivian will also document Fanny and Alexander (Amber Heard and Wyatt Cenac), the happiest twosome ever named after an Ingmar Bergman flick. Their blissful hippie existence is unencumbered by marital vows and fidelity; they’re known to be polyamorous. Fanny also happens to be Alice’s younger, infinitely hipper sister. One more couple is needed, and Vivian is thrilled to encounter bickering Harvey and Cybil (Paul Reiser and Mary Steenburgen) in a diner. Cybil broods about the emotional distance of her grown daughter from her first marriage, while the unfulfilled Harvey has turned to motorcycling as an escape. Like a cartoon character, he sometimes keeps his helmet on indoors.
Much of the movie sputters, in part because timid, repressed Alice doesn’t hold the screen the way Bell’s punchier In a World… alter ego did. (The characterization is based on her mother, Bell has said.) With seven main roles and several flimsy subplots, I Do… lacks focus and drive. The unifying figure is Vivian, but she’s a shallow caricature whose faults don’t add up to either a compelling villain or a significant critique of documentary filmmaking. Aside from Vivian’s brazen pursuit of her own agenda, the principal cinematic in-joke is the lousiness of Mel’s camerawork, which we see in inserts of interviews with the three couples.
The liveliest of the principals are Reiser and Steenburgen, consistently funny even if working from a script that doesn’t exactly specify why their marriage is so troubled. Also droll is Chauntae Pink as a massage-parlor owner in a misjudged sequence that — while necessary to introduce two of the characters — doesn’t provide anything close to a happy ending. The movie’s last act actually works, largely because Bell picks up the pace and brings all the major players together. The final developments are agreeably manic, if a little too sweet. In her previous movie, Bell lampooned the movie biz from a gently feminist perspective, but this time, she takes the side of conventional domesticity. I Do… Until I Don’t may be a fine title for Vivian’s film. But Bell’s would be more aptly called I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do.