Following in the footsteps of Josh Radnor’s Liberal Arts (2012) – a soft-core ditty that met Woody Allen-esque cross-generational romance with an insatiable attempt to make literature sexy, director Josh Boone makes a similar stab at making the romantic tribulations faced by a family of writers remotely interesting in his feature debut Stuck in Love (2013). Binding together a cast of able and likable stars, writer-director Boone takes a comparable approach to storytelling made popular by such long-form TV ‘dramadies’ as The OC (2003-2007) and One Tree Hill (2003-2012) in that he draws as much emphasis on his teenage characters as he does on their parents by mapping their various frictions and allegiances. Yet, as tenderly rendered as these imbalanced relationships are, they engulf a film that resembles an overly long novel whose dense pages far outweigh its meagre spine.
The reliably affable Greg Kinnear plays Bill Borgens, the head of this outré precocious and rigorously well-read family. He is stifled by a bout of writers block founded on his obsessions with his ex-wife Erica (Jennifer Connelly), who left him three years ago for a younger, tighter man who owns a gym (and whose sole characterisation is a rippling torso). The two share different relationships with their ferociously independent daughter Samantha (Lily Collins), who arrives home from college with the news that her first novel is being published. Bill – who endures excitable sporadic sex with a married neighbour (played by Kristen Bell) – is delighted by the news whilst Erica uses it at yet another opportunity to reach out to her estranged daughter, to frosty avail.
Meanwhile Samantha’s younger brother Rusty (Nat Wolff), an ardent Stephen King devotee who aspires to be just as successful, attempts to win over the girl of his schoolyard dreams but faces an uphill battle with her chequered history with substance abuse. As Samantha begins to challenge her stern views on love and companionship – brought about by the pangs of her parent’s separation – by considering the advances of fervent romantic Lou (Logan Lerman) (a fellow King enthusiast), the romantic situations surrounding her begin to blossom, paving the way for various life lessons to be learnt and emotional barriers lifted.
Clearly attempting to be a turning point for the sort of contemporary teen-specific film that bathes in sex and frivolity, Stuck in Love has far too much going on in its variety of spikily plotted sub-narratives to make it anything other than annoying and unfocused. Boone shows a knack for teasing out the charms of his attractive cast but fails at juggling his characters and their occurrences, sacrificing an initially light timbre to wildly melodramatic and soft-edged tonal turns that amount to formulaic conclusions and generic, even totally predictable, resolutions. Similarly overegged are the director’s desires to create a notch on the belt of timeless romantic-comedy-drama by attempting to do something a little different, but his over-soundtracked film and its Über-cultured, ultra-modern inhabitants prevent it from being just that. Scenes of characters fawning over Bright Eyes CDs and sobbing to Elliot Smith’s Between The Bars in the pouring rain are as close to a director forecasting what’s cool and what’s not as cinema gets, even if his pop-culture proclivities are a little dated.
Speaking of cool, and re-referencing Liberal Arts, books are working their way back into cinematic consciousness as examples of the attractiveness of individuality and the importance of articulacy. And though Boone contrives obvious oppositions to the static process of simply reading a book (seen with Bell’s fitness fanatic bigamist and Erica’s six-packed and brain-dead gym bunny hubby), he ceaselessly reminds you that literature is imaginative and fashionable despite his film being anything but.