In his first feature, "In the Land of Women," Jonathan Kasdan has made good use of several things he inherited from his father, fellow writer-director Lawrence Kasdan, including a strong supporting actress (JoBeth Williams) and an experienced editor (Carol Littleton). And something more.
The 27-year-old Kasdan also displays an ability to bring a refreshing, human touch to what could be overly familiar material that echoes what his father did in films like "The Big Chill" and "Body Heat."
But the younger Kasdan (whose older brother Jake's own film, the sharp and funny inside-show-business satire "The TV Set," hit screens earlier this month) is very much his own person as a writer-director. He's taken stock of the world from an age-specific point of view and used sweetness and concern to make this story of looking for love and finding your way through life unexpectedly interesting.
With elements like the specter of fatal illness and emotional moments in the pouring rain, "In the Land of Women" can seem predictable at times. But it is more frequently refreshing in the way it deals with what could easily seem fatally old hat. This is a film that tries, with more than usual success, to be both commercial and honest, calculating and emotional.
Though his previous credits, including writing stints on "Freaks & Geeks" and "Dawson's Creek," have been on television, Kasdan has been around the movie business his entire life, a situation that has allowed him to relax his key cast members and get actors as diverse as "The O.C.'s" young Adam Brody and the veteran Meg Ryan to work and play well together.
Young though he is, Kasdan has gone through his own life-threatening situation (at 16 he underwent chemotherapy and radiation for Stage 2 Hodgkin's disease), and it's possible that that experience has accentuated a natural sensitivity to the vagaries of existence. Crises occur with some regularity in this film, and more often than not they seem like they are for real.
"In the Land of Women" begins with one of those moments, when protagonist Carter Webb (Brody) sits in a coffee-shop daze as his knockout girlfriend, Sofia (Spanish actress Elena Anaya), uses the words "let's be honest with each other" to end a relationship that clearly means more to him than to her.
Carter may be a creator of what he calls "premium soft-core erotica," but he has dreams of being a more substantial writer, and he decides to use this moment of anguish to get out of L.A. and get down to work.
Thinking of killing two birds with one stone, Carter tells his dubious mother (Williams) that he will look in on his ailing grandmother in suburban Michigan and turn her place into a kind of one-man MacDowell Colony. It doesn't quite work that way.
Though cranky and quasi-demented, grandma Phyllis (Olympia Dukakis) lives in a neighborhood of fairy-tale greenness (the film was shot on Canada's Vancouver Island). A family across the street draws Carter out of his self-imposed exile and into the maelstrom of their complicated lives.
In some ways the most interesting of the three Hardwicke females is precocious 11-year-old Paige (Makenzie Vega), a sprite who does yoga and complains "I'm too young to have a life of my own," but it is her older sister and her mother who involve Carter most.
Blond teenager Lucy, played with a charismatic wariness by Kristen Stewart, looks like a princess but has problems embracing her life. Her relationship with mother Sarah is bleak, and Sarah herself (the best work actress Ryan has done in forever) has problems everywhere she turns.
None of this stops these women from being intrigued by the handsome young man who's moved in across the street, or him from being interested in them. It is one of the shrewd conceits of "In the Land of Women" that, although Carter is realistically too young for Sarah and too old for Lucy, serious flirting is very much in the cards as Carter tries to recover from his broken heart while helping these women with theirs.
The film's other calculation is to position Carter as a man whom women instinctively like, someone who considers himself a good listener and is able to make both women feel important by doing just that. Brody, who had a splendid cameo as a Hollywood assistant in "Thank You for Smoking," has just the right kind of sensitive heartthrob quality to make it all convincing.
Though it is very much an overused word, the best thing about "In the Land of Women" is how promising it is. Writer-director Kasdan has made the best film he can make now, which is no small thing. He will make even better ones in the future, which might be a very big thing indeed.
"In the Land of Women." MPAA rating: PG-13 for sexual content, thematic elements and language. Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes. In general release.