You’d have to have an extraordinary amount of confidence in a film to give it a title like Failure to Launch. It’s a target as big as a barn. And I’m left wondering what made the folks behind this film so sure that it was guaranteed boffo. It’s got the elements a standard romantic comedy requires: two hot stars, their oddball friends, cutesy small-animal sequences, some outdoorsy sporting scenes for the guys, some mushy stuff for the girls, and Terry Bradshaw’s 57-year-old bare behind for, well, I’m not sure who that was for.
Put it all together and you’ve got another cautious, deliberate film that hopes to win audience hearts by careful calculation. That’s appropriate to this story, which takes the classic screwball premise of a person actually falling in love with someone while pretending to fall in love with them, and promptly drains all the screwball out of it.
The updated premise initially has promise; it has to do with the increasing phenomenon of adult children continuing to live with their parents. Why do such guys “fail to launch” into the wider world? Paula (Sarah Jessica Parker) believes that “the root cause is a lack of self-esteem.” Just nod, or she’ll go on staring at you in that piercing way. And since “young men develop self-esteem best during a romantic episode,” Paula places herself in the young man’s path, nudges along a romance, and then for some unclear reason he moves out on his own. And then she breaks up with him. The movie goes kind of fuzzy on these last two steps, but just suspend disbelief, because it’s art.
Paula doesn’t do this serial heartbreaking for the fun it undoubtedly is, but as a career. She’s a consultant, and she’s hired by parents desperate to see their fledgling leave the nest. That’s where things begin, as Al (Terry Bradshaw) and Sue (long-suffering Kathy Bates) arrange for Paula to tempt their Tripp (Matthew McConaughey).
Already there’s a logic problem: Tripp is overflowing with self-esteem. And the fact that he lives at home is a help to this, not a hindrance. When a girl begins to get serious, he takes her home, and when she sees Mom and Dad in their matching recliners, she breaks up with him. No worries.
Of course the two find out each other’s secrets, and there are rueful recriminations, and breakups and breakdowns, and it’s all about as much fun as vacuuming the stairs. Slightly more fun is Paula’s deadpan roommate Kit (Zooey Deschanel), though the jokes about her excessive drinking aren’t quite funny. What is funny is her deranged animus against the multitalented mockingbird who sings outside her bedroom window all night. She goes to purchase a shotgun, and gets into an argument with the salesman: “You can’t kill a mockingbird!” “Why not?” “Well, for one thing, there’s the novel by that title…”
Yet along the way there are some promising themes, which could have provided good fodder for examination. Why do post-collegians, male or female, huddle at home? What do young people need, so that they’ll believe they really are competent to be adults? How can baby-boomers-turned-parents, reflexively opposed to authority, communicate authoritatively an invitation to join adult life?
At one point, an older character says that she is frightened for her grown son to move out, because then she’ll be alone with the dad. “Now we have to get to know each other all over again. What if he doesn’t like me?” See, that’s something worth exploring. One character proposes that he and his mate move in with his parents, and they expand the home to cover two generations. That’s a pretty ancient (even Biblical) idea. Why do we assume that “leaving home” means moving across the country? Are we missing some benefits in extended family, when old adults and young adults continue to live near, or even with, each other?
But this comedy seemed determined to do as little reflection as possible, and to color diligently between the lines. I begin to long for the days when movies had an edge of recklessness. That term is hard to define, but it isn’t achieved by having Mr. Bradshaw take off his pants. Yet when you watch a movie from the 30s or the 70s, you can honestly feel like you don’t know what’s going to happen next. You feel the freshness, in the acting as well as the writing. Where did it go?
This movie is like Paula’s consulting business; she’ll march a guy through a defined set of steps, and, voila: Another disappointed ex-boyfriend sits all alone in his new apartment. Likewise, you can march a romantic comedy through the expected scenes, and end up with another mildly entertained, mildly disappointed audience back out on the sidewalk. The difference is, the ex-boyfriend was probably surprised.
–Frederica Mathewes-Green writes regularly for NPR’s Morning Edition, Beliefnet.com, Christianity Today, and other publications. She is the author of Gender: Men, Women, Sex and Feminism, among other books.