Writer-director Stuart Zicherman’s debut is basically a feature-length sitcom. It’s smarter and sharper than most network fare in the genre, but not by much. What helps rescue it from utter mediocrity is a strong cast that gives the script greater punch than it would otherwise have. But even with their presence, “A.C.O.D.” doesn’t rise much beyond the level of a sitcom that might find a home on premium cable rather than Fox.
The title is an acronym for Adult Children of Divorce, a category which Carter (Adam Scott), a successful restaurateur, has been in for some years. The son of Hugh (Richard Jenkins) and Melissa (Catherine O’Hara), who had a turbulent marriage and acrimonious divorce that left him psychologically scarred, he’s grown up playing the family peacemaker, trying to keep up reasonably good relations with each of his parents (who so despise one another that they won’t set foot in the same room together) and their new spouses, haughty Sondra (Amy Poehler), who owns the building that houses Carter’s restaurant, and good-natured regular guy Gary (Ken Howard). He even takes Sondra’s cute kids to outings in the park while allowing his sweet but simple brother Trey (Clark Duke) to live in his garage, along with Trey’s girlfriend Kieko (Valerie Tian).
But the effects of his childhood are evident in his long-time relationship with unbelievably patient Lauren (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a fitness instructor who understands that he has commitment issues and accepts that he hasn’t even given her a key to his place, let alone a ring. In fact, she doesn’t even know that his experience was so traumatic that he would up as one of the young subjects in a best-selling case study about children of divorce written by a straight-talking researcher (Jane Lynch).
Carter’s submerged feelings erupt when Trey proposes to Kieko and asks him not only to be his best man, but to convince Hugh and Melissa to attend the wedding. That leads to an emotional crisis as both initially try to manipulate matters—and their son—to their advantage, and an even greater one when Carter learns that getting back together means that they’ve actually gotten back together.
The film intends for us to sympathize with Clark, who’s apparently acting as a sort of surrogate for Zicherman (himself a child of divorce), but even though Scott is an agreeable lead who tries to endow the fellow with a few layers of personality, Carter’s self-centeredness and habit of using others for his own purposes make him a hard character to root for. (He even proposes ostentatiously at an anniversary party for Lauren’s snooty parents to make himself feel better.)
That scene is just one that comes off arch and unfunny. Though the picture finds sporadic fun in the antics of Jenkins and O’Hara, another is an overwritten, overplayed scene in which those two meet Kieko’s parents at a restaurant. And the big finale involving everybody, which literally involves burning down the house to provide catharsis, is both contrived and unsatisfying.
While Scott emerges with his cult status intact and Jenkins and O’Hara earn some laughs with their full-bore approach to the material, the rest of the cast suffer from the screenplay’s overall flatness. Winstead is wasted as the long-suffering girlfriend, while Duke is saddled with a character so blandly oblivious that one begins to wonder whether Trey has a mental deficiency. Poehler is strident and Howard merely bland, while Lynch’s patented gruffness is a shtick we’ve seen once too often. Jessica Alba shows up briefly as Michelle, another of the subjects in Dr. Judith’s study, presumably to tease viewers with the possibility that she and Carter might link up, but nothing comes of the role, and Alba does little with it. The technical credits are better than average, with John Bailey contributing sleek cinematography that works nicely alongside John Paino’s upscale production design, and Nick Urata’s score is appealingly understated.
Given the current state of American society, there are plenty of A.C.O.D.s out there, and perhaps they’ll find Zicherman’s film insightful enough to overlook that it tries to mine what’s actually a serious situation for easy laughs. (That’s the approach, of course, of many cable sitcoms.) Unfortunately, the laughs don’t come very easily here, except when Jenkins and O’Hara are around, and in terms of the real problems associated with divorce, the movie barely scratches the surface.