The vast majority of screenwriters working in Hollywood are either baby boomers or the children of baby boomers. Since we live in a time when people seldom starve or get eaten by wild animals or die in industrial accidents, everyone, sooner or later, gets cancer. Boomers have been in prime cancer territory for a while now, meaning either that many screenwriters or else their parents have had cancer. Not surprisingly, then, damn near every film in Hollywood lately floats along on at least an undercurrent of cancer. Granted, there's nothing to get the pathos flowing like slow, inevitable death, and nothing cues an orchestral swell like snatching life -- however fleeting -- from its sluggish jaws. It's all just becoming a little one-note. Consider In the Land of Women, for example.
Here Jonathan Kasdan (son of Lawrence) has penned and directed a story about a twenty-something soft-core porn scribe named Carter Webb (Adam Brody) who is dumped by his French actress girlfriend and retreats to take care of his grandmother in Michigan. While there, he connects deeply with a girl named Lucy (Kristen Stewart) and with her mother Sarah (Meg Ryan), who has cancer.
Kasdan, at only 26 years of age, is already a Hodgkin's survivor, and moments in the film seem to touch precisely on his experience. It's heart-wrenching to see Ryan, hands shaking, shave her hair before the radiation gets to it. We sense this is an attempt to gain outward control of her illness, if nothing else; it's a beautiful moment. Most other times, though, the cancer seems either too far in the background or artificially front and center. There are conflicting stories here that have been fused from different parts of the filmmaker's life. Kasdan, like Carter, moved to Michigan to live with his grandma after a bad breakup. Essentially then, he's taken two taut, discrete stories and made one over-ambitious mess.
Kasdan doesn't seem to see either Carter or the cancer as viable centers for the film, so he splits their duty, making Carter the character and cancer the film's catalyst. What he doesn't realize is that, to some degree, the cancer is a character and Carter, left alone with these women in a cancer-free world, could easily be the catalyst for the renewal and forgiveness the film seeks.
Lacking the power to be a catalyst for others, Carter is unable to create change in himself, leaving him floundering. By the last act, Carter feels like a minor planet in temporary orbit above an entire world of grief. The sadness impacts him, and it alters his trajectory for a while, but there's no sense that it leaves him changed.
Nor has he changed the women. There's no sense that Carter contributed to any of the growth we see in either Sarah or Lucy. It's easy to see where this failure of ambition comes from -- given the grand, tawdry interpersonal panoramas that Kasdan's father has conjured (The Big Chill, Grand Canyon) -- but it remains a failure nonetheless. (Rated PG-13)