A critique of documentary ethics wrapped in a comedy about multiple remarriages, Lake Bell’s I Do…Until I Don’t revisits the themes of her feature-length directorial debut from a less idealistic and more incoherent perspective. Where 2013’s In a World… cast Bell as a striver gamely trudging along trying to crack the glass ceiling of Hollywood’s voiceover work, here her Alice is the Carol White of Vero Beach, Florida. Always clad in tennis whites, Alice is pallid, shy, and submissive, seemingly content despite a fundamentally sad existence running a failing business selling blinds with her husband, Noah (Ed Helms). Her dissatisfaction, along with her impulse to create art, is awakened by the arrival of Vivian Prudeck (Dolly Wells), a British filmmaker searching for subjects to confirm her latest sociological hypothesis: Human beings live too long to stay together forever, and marriage should become a seven-year contract, “with an option to renew.”
Prudeck’s documentary is portrayed as exploitative and immoral from the outset, so it’s kind of bewildering how eager the film is to investigate her point of view. Despite the fact that her role in Prudeck’s film is unpaid, Alice becomes consumed with the idea of becoming a compelling character for the director. While she’s content to self-sabotage, Prudeck has to hire other subjects in order to bend them to her bitter ends. Alice’s sister, Fanny (Amber Heard), and her husband, Zander (Wyatt Cenac), are paid because of the sex appeal of their open marriage, and because Prudeck thinks she can ruin it; an unrelated older couple, Cybil (Mary Steenburgen) and Harvey (Paul Reiser), is recruited because their impending divorce is so readily apparent.
It’s frustrating to watch a film so quickly hampered by a miserable premise, because Bell’s talents as a director are immediately apparent. Though much of I Do…Until I Don’t is centered on dialogue scenes between two people, the film is full of small, psychologically purposeful camera movements and crisply edited banter. Bell’s characters are often better served by her unfussy, striking visuals than her script: Alice and Noah, hopelessly timid and conventional, live in a sunny white home accented by putting-green wall patterns and furnishings which connote their country-club aspirations. Despite the often inscrutable motivations of these bitter and flummoxed lovers, Bell sculpts performances that are innately relaxed, such that improvised riffs and more densely structured jokes play out in a quasi-naturalistic register.
That effortlessly confident sensibility is the most appealing aspect of In a World…, the rare comedian-centric romcom that allows its stars to portray fully developed characters. Formulaic but precisely calibrated, that film is one of the best mainstream romantic comedies of the century, beautifully tying its concerns about standards of talent and beauty in a male-dominated industry to the anxieties of a single woman overwhelmed by the outsized ambitions of everyone around her. In I Do…Until I Don’t, neither Bell’s critique of prestigious foreign documentarians nor her hot take on how to “save” the institution of marriage carry much interest or resonance.
Even before some UnREAL-lite production hijinks and an insane foray into sex work that only serves to create a flimsy connection between the three couples, this film’s characters are alternately cruel and dim, only unified by their lack of psychic logic. It’s hard to tell who’s being lampooned and who’s being treated with sincerity at any given point, and it comes as a huge relief when most of these characters reorient themselves around the bland notion that there’s nothing wrong with traditional marriage.