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Summer of Self-Help


Although "Disturbia" is still lording it over the box office, it may be that Hollywood's indie division is starting to get a bad conscience about its habit of knocking the suburbs. That, in any case, is one of the more interesting implications of "In the Land of Women," the soothingly bland, intermittently heart-tugging directorial debut of Jon Kasdan.

Taking its cue from Zach Braff's "Garden State" (2004), the film depicts the 'burbs as a place of healing to which young victims of city life can repair to find themselves and gird up for the labors of adulthood. Although there's not much more substance here than in the usual canned complaints about subdivision malaise, at least this harmless diversion avoids some of the cheaper shots at subdivision malaise.

At the center of things is Carter Webb (Adam Brody of "The O.C."), a 26-year-old Los Angeleno and aspiring screenwriter who knocks out soft-core porn scripts while putting off work on what he imagines will be his magnum opus — a story about his teen years at West L.A. High School. After he is dumped by his rising-star girlfriend (Elena Anaya), an opportunity to escape the hothouse of L.A. life presents itself in the form of his ailing, mentally erratic Michigan grandma (Olympia Dukakis), who needs looking after. Off he goes, heartbreak and vocational insecurities in tow, to care for the batty, charmingly curse-spouting invalid. She's a crutch for the director, but admittedly funny.

But it's his doings with the neighbors, it turns out, that command the movie's attention. Next door, Meg Ryan is gamely coping with a straying husband (Clark Gregg) and her distant, adolescent daughter (Kristen Stewart), all cheekbones and midriff. Her perky and precocious younger daughter (Makenzie Vega) rounds out the cast of characters. Carter, his affections recently untethered and the only man on the block, finds himself drawn into a web of baffling entanglements and complications.

The land of women is a place where insecurities and vague grievances against life are calmly bandied about, where home truths are spoken and attended to, and where, in occasional bursts of passion or anger, relationships come into sharp focus. At its most promising, the movie has a pleasing willingness just to follow the characters around as they stroll through shrubby, well-manicured lanes, hang out at the mall or roam the supermarket aisles, where they engage each other with endless stock-taking.

It's as if, with all this talk and loose plotting, Kasdan were aspiring to be the Eric Rohmer of the Lower Peninsula. If he is, he's kidding himself. The problem is that these good-hearted people can speak only in the shopworn manner of daytime chat shows or evening soaps. To compensate, Kasdan resorts to mere shtick. This technique is most glaring when it comes to Dukakis, who with wearying regularity wanders onto the screen whenever things slow down, in order to deliver an obscene word or gesture, mostly foulmouthed revisions of her signature role in "Moonstruck" (1987).

The movie flirts with larger issues — infidelity, sickness, aimlessness — but without much conviction or insight, as if it were trying to will itself into an epiphany. When Meg Ryan confides in her new neighbor about her marriage troubles, for example, one can't imagine why she, with all her experience, would possibly wish to do so. This film unintentionally makes a case for believing that the young have nothing of interest to say to their seniors, and very little of interest to say to each other. When Ryan's daughter likewise turns to Carter with her problems — the movie edges into territory owned by "The Graduate" — all he can do is play at being Dr. Phil and hector her on the need to "let go" of old grudges.

The specter of mortality comes to dominate the final reels, and this does successfully raise the ante and allow for the strongest moments in the movie. As the title suggests, it's really relationships between women that count here, especially the troubled one between mother and teenage daughter. It's with some disappointment, then, that we realize that their first significant exchange, quite movingly acted, comes 80 minutes into the movie. Until then, we've mostly just heard them griping about each other to Carter, whose own problems are a good deal less interesting than those of the supporting players.

"In the Land of Women" doesn't measure up to its aspirations, and doesn't figure out what's most interesting about itself until too late. Like many a trip to the food court, it leaves you wishing for something a bit more substantial. (PG-13) 97 min. ** S

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