Trading a clunky but more on-point title for a sugary generic one, Stuck in Love previously played the festival circuit as Writers. Mindful of commercial packaging, the name change makes perfect sense, though it’s quite possible the producers insisted on the switch after recognising the finished film’s disservice to the written word.
The Borgens are a family of writers whose creative output and character is still being seismically affected by an infidelity years earlier. Erica (Jennifer Connelly) has long since divorced Bill (Greg Kinnear) and traded him in for a younger model, though her new fitness instructor husband is such an unfunnily caricatured musclehead, it’s impossible to believe an intelligent Joan Didion-reading artist would see enough in this man to marry him.
Bill is a best-selling author with a couple of prestigious literary awards to his name but hasn’t been able to write anything since. His daughter Samantha (Lilly Collins) has severed ties with Erica, put all the unvoiced angst of catching Mum cheating on Dad into her second novel, and is now a published author at the tender age of nineteen. Her younger brother Rusty (Nat Wolff) shuffles between both parents, having two Thanksgivings every year. An aspiring novelist and Stephen King fanatic, he’s also a lonely, introverted pothead, lacking the life experience to write anything of substance.
For all their literary name-dropping and despite Bill twice invoking the short stories of Raymond Carver, the Brogens’ own words (spoken, written and typed) have all the feeling and insight of a fortune cookie. They speak in contrived sentences of secondhand sentiments borrowed from a dozen other equally trite indie films, yet writer-director Josh Boone really seems to believe he’s voicing something profound here, doubling up the dialogue by flashing it up on screen Great Gatsby style. When Baz Luhrmann, does it, it’s cringingly hokey, but at least he’s got some of the greatest words of American Literature to work with. No such luck here.
Given that the film is about writers, you expect hyper-articulate characters and boozed-infused barbs, but when cynical Samantha, whose burned out on the idea of true love or any such notion, gets hit on in a bar, what should be a tart rejoinder is an explosion of verbal diarrhea. She might dazzle a jock with her precocious, mile-a-minute outpourings, but anytime you have teenagers speaking about having ‘flashes of clarity,’ as if the sum total experience of their five minutes on this earth amounts to anything worth listening to, it’s time to run for the hills—that goes double for narcissistic writers published at nineteen.
As if the East Hamptons locales and catalogue wardrobe don’t already give it away, the degree of privilege enjoyed by Bill’s brats is made explicit by the fact their father actually pays them to write in their journals everyday. Not having to hold down a day job, the kids are afforded the luxury of honing their artistic skills and following in Daddy’s footsteps. The very idea is preposterous and makes them all instantly unlikable, though this unusual living arragement might have at least spurred more interesting discussions about the creative process.
We’re told that writers are an envious bunch and early on there’s the promise of father-daughter conflict borne out of the fact that Bill is completely unaware his daughter wrote an entirely new book over the summer. The very same book she successfully submitted to publishers was not the manuscript she and Bill worked on together under the guidance of her father’s heavy editorial hand. The tension of the prodigal daughter eclipsing the renowned author’s fading relevance is brought up in passing if only to proffer a reason for us to buy them as writers. Once that’s been established, Boone eagerly sets father, daughter and brother off on separate romantic tracts.
Intermittently, they are reunited for scenes of family dysfunction whose sole purpose seems to be to give the film a thin sense of unity. Without a hint of sincerity in the family dynamics, there’s a feeling of characters being called in for dinner, wandering in from their various storylines and gathering round the table. Ostensibly they’re there to talk about love but all any of them seems interested in is getting laid.
When he’s not stalking his ex, Bill is laying his neighbour Tricia (Kristen Bell), a bored young trophy wife, like him only there for the sex. Samantha is far worse. A portrait of promiscuousness, she beds a different guy every night and runs at the first sign of feeling. This doesn’t deter persistent musician Lou (Logan Lerman), who will inevitably melt Samantha’s frozen heart. Not only is he a dreamboat bass player, he’s also a sensitive soul with a dying mother and a pre-requisite indie boy penchant for Elliot Smith. Despite this, their initial meet cute bodes well, occasioning a putdown from Collins, which is the film’s single best line: “You reek of romance and good intentions.” Whether Boone had any other comparable zingers in him is hard to tell, the acoustic playlist of drippy, coffeehouse crap that plays over almost all their scenes together makes it impossible to concentrate on what they’re saying.
In the few moments the couples aren’t intruded upon by a campus radio station, Boone has Lou espouse about his favourite books, TV shows and songs as if this constitutes character. When that doesn’t work, he’s routinely found guilty of that other rookie director mistake of continually resorting to musical montage. The most egregious example is Bill going on his first date in twenty years, a huge life change we want to be a fly on the wall for, only all the dialogue is drowned out by pop music. It’s a real shame as Kinnear, playing to his strengths as the beige, baleful everyman, really gives the role his best, reminding us that career-wise, he really deserves much better.
It’s Rusty’s romantic entanglement that’s probably most frustrating of all. Bill is urging his son to put some life on the page, and given that a writer is supposedly the sum of their experiences, he insists Rusty go get some. This essentially amounts to the same outsider’s rite-of-passage you’ve seen in every other American teen dramady. The geek inherits the earth by forcing re-birth on himself; getting drunk, punching out the captain of the football team, and with newfound swagger, stealing away into the night with the unapproachable girl who previously showed no interest whatsoever but just now having seen him in a new light, instantly “gets” him.
It’s not enough that the film already has a girl published at nineteen, it’s got another, Kate (Liana Liberato) who’s a drug addict at sixteen. No backstory necessary, presumably this is just how they do it in the Hamptons. With all that boredom and money, a high school drug addiction is just par for the course. Conveniently, it’s also a plot development that gives Rusty the experience he’s been looking for. You gotta hand it to the guy, he never has a second thought about Kate’s habit and even manages to keep a straight face when she describes a Bright Eyes album as the road map to her soul.
Low key to the point of betraying its overall blandness and eye-rollingly contrived, when this lot aren’t expressing their feelings with drippy musical accompaniment, they’re sounding off impassioned monologues to one another. In one such instance Bill proclaims, “I’m not a great writer. I’m a great rewriter.” Maybe he should’ve cast his eyes over the screenplay.
A version of this review was first published by Cine Outsider on June 14, 2013