Friday, July 25, 2014

And So It Goes: And so it went

And So It Goes (2014) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rated PG-13, for sexual candor and drug content

By Derrick Bang

This feels like a Reader’s Digest Condensed Movie. And not a very good one.

Although blessed with occasional charm and a fair number of well-delivered verbal zingers, And So It Goes is destined for instant oblivion. The premise is strictly TV sitcom lite, the delivery by the numbers, the outcome completely predictable.

When Oren (Michael Douglas) gets saddled with a granddaughter he didn't even know
existed, he asks next-door neighbor Leah (Diane Keaton) to watch the girl. For an
unspecified period of time. Which Leah improbably agrees to do, despite having very little
use for Oren. Which makes about as much sense as anything else in this dim-bulb flick.
In one respect, this gentle rom-com is a breath of fresh air: a (mostly) family-friendly affair designed for older viewers who will appreciate seeing pros such as Michael Douglas, Diane Keaton and Frances Sternhagen do what they do best. By simple virtue of offering an alternative to summer’s noisy, vacuous popcorn flicks, this film should enjoy a reasonable opening weekend.

After that, sadly, word of mouth will bury it completely.

I simply cannot believe that this clumsy mess comes from director Rob Reiner and scripter Mark Andrus. The former has a string of hits going back to Stand By Me, The Princess Bride and When Harry Met Sally; the latter earned a well-deserved Academy Award nomination for co-scripting 1997’s As Good As It Gets, and then went on to write 2001’s marvelous Life As a House.

Point being, both Reiner and Andrus excel at whimsical, multi-character dramedies with a bit of bite; it’s their bread and butter. So what they heck went wrong this time?

And So It Goes is suspiciously short, at 94 minutes, which suggests the sort of eleventh-hour tampering that might explain some sub-plots that pop up and then just sorta vanish. But that doesn’t excuse a few of Andrus’ hammer-handed narrative hiccups, most particularly a sidebar so glaringly unpleasant that it feels yanked in from some other movie: a true what-the-heck-were-they-thinking moment.

Our central character is Oren Little (Douglas), an irascible crank who nonetheless is the most successful Realtor in a bucolic Connecticut lakefront community: the sort of place where the rich have more money than God. Oren probably belongs in their company, but — following his wife’s recent death, from cancer — he has chosen to reside in a cramped multi-apartment unit dubbed Little Shangri-La. He shares this building with adjacent first-floor neighbor Leah (Keaton) and two upstairs tenants.

All of whom regard him as a grouch and a pain in the keister, an image Oren does nothing to discourage.

Once upon a time, Oren might have been a nice guy, but spending two years watching his wife die drained all of his finer qualities. Now he’s just one big commission away from being able to retire, and he can’t wait to leave. Which seems odd on the surface, because he’d also be abandoning his wife’s grave site, which he visits frequently.

We get no time to ponder that detail, though, because Oren gets bushwhacked by his long-estranged son — Scott Shepherd, as Luke — a former drug addict who, though sober, is going to prison for reasons that frankly defy description (despite Andrus’ game effort to make the situation sound credible). This forces Luke to leave his adorable 9-year-old daughter, Sarah (Sterling Jerins), in the care of her only other relative: Oren ... who didn’t even know of the little girl’s existence.

A responsibility Oren initially refuses flat-out. Fortunately, Leah is kind enough, and reasonable enough, to step in and take charge of Sarah.

I’ve gotta say, that’s one impressive neighbor.

This unlikely arrangement aside, Leah has been struggling to build a career as a lounge singer: a major step in the wake of her own beloved husband’s death not long ago. Trouble is, Leah dissolves into tears every time she attempts a torch song, which is something of a liability under circumstances that pretty much demand an abundance of torch songs.

That’s actually a captivating character detail, and one of the few indications of the Mark Andrus scripts I used to admire. Keaton does her own singing, and she’s pretty good, with a delivery that’s just right for the material and this story’s setting. How she eventually confronts her “weepiness issue” is far more engaging — and credible — than anything else taking place in this narrative.

The rest of the script is unconvincingly fast-tracked. Young Sarah accepts her new surroundings awfully fast, even for this sort of story; the adorable Jerins barely has time to work her doleful features before boom, she settles into this new and highly unusual routine as if born to it.

Oren thaws just as rapidly, and unpersuasively ... particularly since he spends the first act being such a thoroughly contemptible cad. That’s another serious problem: Douglas is much too good at being unpleasant, and Oren’s lesser qualities — misogyny, racism, brittle hostility and overall misanthropy — are worked to the point where redemption, no matter how “necessary” in terms of the script, becomes hard to accept.

I’ll say this, though: The older Douglas gets, the more he looks and sounds like his father. At times, you can close your eyes and picture Kirk Douglas delivering this dialogue, and doing a better job of being a crusty — but somehow lovable — old coot.

Michael Douglas, on the other hand, never quite sells Oren’s eventual return to grace; it happens only because the script insists as much. That’s also the case with Oren’s clumsy effort to get Leah into bed, a wholly ridiculous scene that also “succeeds” only because the script says so. Earlier this year, I complained about Olivia Williams’ thoroughly ludicrous surrender to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ridiculous advances, in Sabotage; well, Douglas’ romantic encounter with Keaton here is just as unbelievable.


The truly unforgivable sequence comes when Oren decides, after too little research, to re-unite Sarah with her deadbeat mother (Meryl Williams). This encounter is so grim and unpleasant that the film screeches to a halt, with us viewers utterly aghast. The fact that this becomes a tipping point for Oren himself is no justification; Jerins sells the scene so well, Sarah’s face a blend of terror and resignation, that the scene qualifies as child abuse.

On top of which, we’re subsequently left with another sloppy detail: Sarah’s mother, having now been introduced, seems primed for a third-act custody battle ... and yet we never see her again. Which is ludicrous.

As for the rest...

Maurice Jones and Yaya DaCosta are pleasant as a couple living in one of Little Shangri-La’s upstairs units; he’s a local cop — whose profession proves handy, at one point — and she’s very pregnant. Single mom Sarabeth (Markley Rizzi) lives in the other upstairs unit, with her two lively young sons. At least, I think she’s single; she speaks for herself, when abruptly insisting that she wants to move ... and yet she seems to have a steady male companion.

That “wanting to move” detail is something else that just gets discarded along the way.

Sternhagen has great fun as one of Oren’s feisty realty colleagues; she’s always a hoot, and her tart delivery is a great match for her equally piquant dialogue.

And, in a eyebrow-lifting bit of cinematic serendipity, none other than Frankie Valli pops up as the owner of a local restaurant where Leah hopes to get a job. Valli gets to gently spoof his own younger self’s image, as presented in Jersey Boys, when he warns Oren not to “bust his balls.”

That line draws a genuine chuckle, and is much more successful than several of Oren’s earlier references to male anatomy, which are merely vulgar. And out of place in this script.

Reiner casts himself as Leah’s friend and faithful pianist, yet another oddly underdeveloped role that climaxes with a moronic pratfall.

Which pretty much sums up the entire film. And So It Goes is an endless stream of mistakes, ill-advised plot contrivances and frankly desperate efforts at humor. Some deliciously snarky dialogue and a feel-good finale can’t compensate for so much poor judgment, or for the fact that this film wastes the time and talent of everybody involved.

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