Kristen Bell: Stuck in Love (2012)
By Mark Abraham· Oct 08, 2013
Just FYI, this article contains material that might be considered spoilery based on our spoiler policy. In this instance, that includes discussion of the same stuff that always happens in this type of movie.
One indication that you can assume that all your superficial assumptions about Stuck in Love will turn out to be accurate is that Googling it reveals that it has been released under a few names; in North America, it has had at least two since it debuted at the Toronto Film Festival in 2012. Not that Writers would have been better, probably, since that’s one anvil in the face too many. Because this is a film about writers, see? If you forget, the characters remind us that they are writers over and over. Of course, what that means is that all of the usual bugaboos about writers in movies are here in full complement. You know: like how writers are and what writing is? Those things that don’t really make a lick of sense to those of us who don’t have any romance invested in the idea of being a writer? Which is the biggest problem with the film: these things are assumed by Josh Boone, the director and screenwriter, to be interesting enough that we won’t care that this film about writers is not really all that well written.
…why is it that most films about writers are so averagely written?
Explaining what happens almost seems like a waste of time, because nothing really happens except for family members forgiving one another for things that happened before the start of the film—things which unfortunately seem far more compelling that what actually happens during the course of the film. Bill Borgens (Greg Kinnear) is a novelist who is either super well respected or merely has one great book that he wrote when he was younger—the inflection of how respected he is seems to change depending on the needs of a particular scene—whose children, Sam (Lily Collins) and Rusty (Nat Wolff), are also writers, because Bill pays them to maintain writing journals so they don’t have to get real jobs. Bill spends most of his time not writing and pining after his ex-wife Erica (Jennifer Connelly), who patiently tells him over and over that things are done between them and that she has moved on and remarried, at least until the last five minutes of the film when she shows up for a Thanksgiving dinner at Bill’s house, which is a whole thing, see, because every year Bill sets her a place and she never shows up but this year he doesn’t set the place and she does show up because…of course she does.
It’s even more ludicrous when you consider that most of the tension in this story revolves around Sam shutting her mother out of her life out of to loyalty to Bill. Sam even witnessed the beginnings of her mother’s affair with her new husband Martin (Rusty Joiner); the film argues that this is the reason Sam herself is incapable of conceptualizing real love, which is why she spends her time in college being, as Rusty puts it, “promiscuous,” and having sex whenever she feels like it.
…I mean, “empty, soul-crushing one night stands,” because as we all know 19-year-olds who are just about to publish their first book need to enter a monogamous relationship, stat! Seriously, how can any movie written in the last 10 years think it can ever get away with arguing that a 19-year-old woman is fooling themselves with a series of casual hookups? It grates because Sam has agency here; she belittles the men she has sex with; she’s not allowing people to take advantage of her; her attitude is therefore not, in and of itself, evidence of some existential crisis. So initially it seems like the film is onboard with her casual attitude towards sex even as it portrays her fear of commitment as a character flaw, which is perfectly fine. The problem is that somewhere in the midst of the film—starting with the introduction of Lou (Logan Lerman), who is nice enough to only once point out that Sam’s having meaningless sex with frat boys because she’s afraid of intimacy—her behavior is suddenly portrayed as self-destructive, and ultimately has Sam admit she was wrong. About…not saving herself for true love, I guess? It’s even more aggravating because Lily Collins is really good in this film, so I’m not entirely sure the sympathy that I thought the film had for Sam is unintentional just because Collins is doing such a good job with the character.
Anyways, the film’s point is that Sam saw her mother make out with Martin and has never forgiven her, which is not only why Sam has no relationship with her mother but is also why Sam is such a sad, ennui-filled college student with a horribly average sex life that we should all see as empty and unfortunate or something. So of course, with like half-an-hour left to go, Bill finally tells Sam the truth, by which I mean he reveals a piece of information that the film hasn’t even hinted at which fundamentally changes what we know about the relationships between all of these characters: that he cheated on Erica first.
That revelation is a problem not so much because it is revealed but because it codifies what a horrible, selfish person Bill is. To this point in the film, Bill has already done many awful things:
- He gets excited about Sam’s news that she gets to publish her first book until she reveals that the book she’s publishing is not the one he helped to edit, but one he’s never even seen, after which he actually says out loud that he doesn’t want to read the new one. He’s lying, but he still said that out loud.
- He tells Rusty that he’s pretty lame and advocates that he have some life experiences so that he’ll write better, which he’s happy about until Rusty gets into a fight. At no point does he acknowledge that maybe paying his son to sequester himself in his room to write stuff on the regs is the reason he has no friends at school.
- He refuses to take Erica at her word throughout the film, and keeps acting like she’s lying that she has moved on.
So when he finally reveals that on top of all that he’s been playing the cuckold to gain his children’s sympathy while keeping his own culpability a secret? Sam’s reaction should be to cut him out of her life. Instead, she just sort of accepts it, makes up with her mother, and is around to be happy when Erica shows up to make the family whole at the end of the film.
The rest of the film’s plot is about Rusty’s new girlfriend Kate (Liana Liberato), who of course he lands by reading a too-earnest poem out loud in class, because that always works. Kate is a secret drug addict—…I guess—who disappears from Sam’s book launch with one of Sam’s publisher’s students, forcing the family—despite Sam being pissed that Erica even showed up, and also pissed at Leo for calling her mother to let her know about it, which he does because his mother is about to die and he’s upset that Sam is so rigid about the whole affair thing—to spring into action as a family unit to save her. From circumstances they know nothing about. And while their assumption that the guy Kate left with is a sexual predator is solid enough—it is really weird and gross to abscond from a book launch at, like, 7PM with a super-drunk 16-year-old—the tension in the scene where they confront him is absolutely deflated when Bill’s parting shot is essentially to yell, “you’ll never write another book in this town again!” at the guy. Which is a laughable line in an otherwise very serious scene.
I’m not saying they shouldn’t go after Kate, obviously. It’s more that Kate’s drug use is, to this point in the film, treated fairly innocuously, and also as evidence that she can help Rusty have the kinds of “writerly” experiences Bill wants him to have. So for the film to suddenly invert itself like this and have her become this vortex of lack of control that requires saving sends it careening off into weird territory, and reiterates the thing that is odd about Sam’s story as an argument the film is I guess actually making: that things about women that seem independent and potentially subversive are, in reality, evidence of deep emotional scars. Really, even Erica’s story is the same: protest Bill’s stubborn refusal to move on all she wants, but really it’s her life that is empty without him. This stuff might be better if Bill and Rusty and Lou were treated in a similar fashion, but the three male characters all essentially get their way: Bill is right that Erica was always going to come back, Lou is right that for all her posturing Sam really just wants to be loved, and Rusty is right that that Kate is at heart a good person who just needs him to provide stability so she can pull herself together. To add insult to injury, all of the women are forced to apologize and beg forgiveness. Even Kate, who despite the fact that she spends the denouement of the film in rehab still manages to voiceover a letter to Rusty. Which means that while the film is enjoyable enough in a basic sense, it’s hard to recommend because…is this the point it’s making? I find it hard to believe it’s coincidental that all three stories end in essentially the same way.
Anyways, Kristen Bell plays Tricia, a neighbor of Bill’s who uses her beach jogs as an excuse to get away from her husband and children to fuck Bill. Which is hilarious, because it’s very clear that Bill isn’t really good enough at sex to be worth the bother, but when you’re a busy wife and mother what are you going to do? By far the best scenes in the film are when Tricia decides that Bill needs to move on and try dating again, and helps him to set up an online profile. She trashes his wardrobe and mocks his profile, providing some small amount of humor in the film. It’s not a great role, but Bell is pretty great in it, and as the only woman in the film who isn’t forced to account for her mistakes she gets to just be fun and acerbic, without eventually having to admit that it was all just a sham. Which is, of course, why the film sort of portrays her fashion choices and ideas about Bill’s dating profile as eye roll-worthy, but: this movie is wrong. Tricia is the only character in the film who has any sense at all.