This isn't great but it's watchable and the actors shine
Bart Freundlich, who wrote and directed, is the real-life husband of the star, Julienne Moore. Married to an actress, he respects actors, and he has let them shine, costarring David Duchovny as the husband of Rebecca (Moore) who stays at home taking care of the kids while his wife prepares a play to be staged at Lincoln center. Like Freundlich and Moore, Tom and Rebecca, the characters Moore and Duchovny play, have a nice house in the Village, which they share with two small children. And meanwhile the film's other couple, Tobey (Billy Crudup, whom Freudlich directed with Moore in a previous film) and Elaine (Maggie Gyllenhaal) share an apartment, childless, though Elaine wants nothing more than for Tobey to marry her and make babies. Tobey is Rebecca's brother and Tom is his best friend. Both men are more like househusbands at this point in their lives, though Tom is a commercial writer who allegedly penned the immortal question, "Got milk?"
Tom's bored, and at an annual couples-therapy session with Jerry Shadling as the shrink, it emerges that he wants more sex, and Ms. Moore's character doesn't.
Eventually both couples' relationships are in crisis and both men are kicked out. Movie-romance resolutions of a stunning theatricality end the proceedings. At first personalities and humor are annoying and so is the striving for punch lines. You're glad the scenes are short because you can't stand to be with any of these people for more than a few minutes. Eventually you start to like even the annoying Crudup character. Or maybe you just come to admire Crudup's acting, which carries conviction and appeal even when he's being a useless, selfish person. Ms. Gyllenhaal is utterly charming. Duchovny and Moore are good.
We could do with fewer fart and potty jokes, though they're clearly meant to convey a sense of married life with young children as Americans now view it. Tom's recourse to a 12-step type sex addiction group is lame and overly familiar. He is not facing up to his issues; the writer/director is avoiding the conventionality of his character's extra-marital affair and his own failure to give his characters much depth.
What redeems the movie is the acting. Crudup embraces the tics and stammers of his performance with a masculine vigor and makes them fun. He begins being insufferable but ends being real; it's the film's best performance, though each of the others has something worthwhile to add. Julienne Moore is queenly and likable, even if she is walking through the part: but that's the fault of the writing, which makes her too perfect, a "star" playing a star. Maggie is lovable and bubbly: it's not a subtle part but it's irresistible. Duchovny projects sophistication and a knowing irony.
It might have been nice if the ideas had been a little fresher; if there'd been more of them; if the finale had been less stagy and warmer. There are episodes, like Tobey's meetings with a fussy, uptight shrink, that have so little to do with their characters it's only the actor's panache that makes them work: the structure isn't the only thing that's fragmented, but also the conceptions of the characters. Manhattan, particularly the Village, is a fifth star of the film. There's no harm that we see only bits and pieces of it, SoHo, Lincoln Center, etc. They're all real-looking, and the neighborhoods aren't artificially glamorized or demonized, just treated straight. But the settings aren't handled originally enough to give the picture an individual style or look. This is a movie that's watchable and well acted, but not great.
©Chris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/