Sundance Review: 'A.C.O.D.' has a silly title, but Adam Scott yields some laughs

Richard Jenkins and Catherine O'Hara shine in divorce comedy

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<p>Adam Scott of &quot;A.C.O.D.&quot;</p>

Adam Scott of "A.C.O.D."

Credit: Sundance
As a critic, I've been known to call certain films "sitcom-y" and probably nine times out of 10, I mean it as a pejorative. 
 
I'm not sure why that is. There are good sitcoms out there. Lots of good sitcoms. In fact, for my money, there are more good TV sitcoms than there are good motion picture comedies and that's by a wide margin. 
 
"Sitcom-y" usually refers to a certain broadness that many TV comedies have, but it could just as easily refer to the rhythm and structure that TV comedies have to develop in order to work in a 22-minute window.
 
I'm not saying that I'd ever call a comedy that I out-and-out loved "sitcom-y." Judd Apatow has definitely made movies that owe everything to a style he developed working on TV, though I'm not sure I'd always call his movies "sitcom-y," but sometimes they are. "In the Loop" is basically "The Thick of It" in feature form, but I probably wouldn't call Armando Ianucci's film "sitcom-y."
 
So it's a matter of situation.
 
Stu Zicherman's dreadfully titled "A.C.O.D." premiered on Wednesday (January 23) night at the Sundance Film Festival and... it's sitcom-y. But it isn't sitcom-y in a way that I consider necessarily negative. Zicherman is making his feature directing debut, but most of his recent writing credits have been on the small screen, including FX's very fine "Lights Out." He wrote the script with "The Daily Show" veteran Ben Karlin. His "A.C.O.D." cast includes the stars of "Parks and Recreation," plus actors currently appearing on "30 Rock" and "The Office."
 
So, in this instance, when I say that "A.C.O.D." is sitcom-y, it means that it's a neatly arced comedy with a steady stream of jokes, delivered by a professional troupe of performers who know how to efficiently hit every punchline. "A.C.O.D." is very rarely surprising and Zicherman's directing M.O. is mostly to get out of the way of his cast, but that's just smart business.
 
And speaking of business, while I don't consider it my business to speculate on future commercial fortunes, even at film market like Sundance, "A.C.O.D." is an ultra-accessible, easy-to-laugh-at comedy with some brains, so it may end up looking even better outside of Park City.
 
[Full review after the break...]
 
Adam Scott's Carter believes that despite his parents' epically acrimonious divorce 20 years earlier, he's grown up pretty well, with a successful restaurant and an attractive girlfriend (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). When  Carter's brother Trey (Clark Duke) announced that he's getting married, though, Carter has to see what it will take to get his mother (Catherine O'Hara) and father (Richard Jenkins) to submit to being in the same room for a possible wedding. Reuniting his parents -- now with new spouses (Ken Howard and Amy Poehler) -- rekindles old insecurities and leads Carter back to the woman (Jane Lynch) he thought was his therapist, but was actually writing a wildly successful book about children of divorce, a book in which he was a featured, renamed case study. Has Carter matured from the boy he used to be? Or is he and are his parents doomed to repeat similarly farcical cycles of dysfunction?
 
The reunited of adversarial parents around a wedding or engagement isn't especially fresh. In fact, Scott's character experienced the same circumstance to more hilarious effect earlier this year on "Parks and Recreation." Freshness ceases to be a primary worry, though, when you have actors like Jenkins and O'Hara in the paternal roles. Although Jenkins has developed into a character actor with Oscar-nominated dramatic heft, the "Step Brothers" veteran is always had a looser, wicked gear when he gets to do comedy and he's at his smirking, passive aggressive, venal best here. With O'Hara, the question is always how far she's going to be allowed to go and while this doesn't find her quite in Christopher Guest mode, she has some superior unexpected moments, particularly a Japanese tea-house meeting with Trey's bride-to-be.
 
I found more freshness in the identity issues raised by Lynch's Dr. Judith and her decision to revisit her bestseller "Children of Divorce" as "Adult Children of Divorce" (hence the clunky title), bringing back her original case studies. One of my favorite scenes in the movie is a conversation between Carter and Jessica Alba's Michelle, as the two ACODs each attempt to figure who the other one used to be. I can't be sure if Alba is actually funny here and I don't know if she's been given enough character shading to be funny, but she's able to participate in funny scenes without taking away from the funny, which counts as praiseworthy in my book. Alba's only in a few scenes, but don't be afraid of her. 
 
Scott, meanwhile, is in every scene. It's hard to think of a single conversation or even a single shot in which he isn't front and center. There are many shades of his "Parks and Recreation" character here, but Carter isn't exactly Ben Wyatt, even if they share an immaculate dead-pan, less-than-ideal youthful fame and parents who can't stand to breath the same air. The similarities are still enough that there's an unintended and strange value-added subtext to Poehler's presence playing his wicked stepmother. If anything, Poehler is a little wasted here, not because she doesn't elevate her stock character into something much weirder and funnier than she would be otherwise, but there are so many weird and funny moments hinted at but unexplored in the brisk 95 minute film. 
 
While 95 minutes is definitely the right running time for "A.C.O.D." it leaves a lot of very talented people scrambling to make moments with limited screentime. Winstead gets to be sweet and lovely, but little more -- after her career-best performance in "Smashed" last January, this Sundance was all about offering support. Lynch keeps her Sue Sylvester delivery or mannerisms, though I seem to have entirely missed the running sight-gag involving her character. Howard is also sticking close to his recent TV work, giving his Gary some of the obliviousness of Hank Hooper from "30 Rock." Adam Pally has scene and gets chuckles despite almost no dialogue. [I'd also tell cancellation-happy ABC that the mere sight of Pally got an audible response from the crowd. That's something to consider before pulling "Happy Endings.]
 
Even though you mostly know where "A.C.O.D." is going, I appreciated how smoothly the major plot-points of the last act are set up in the early-going and how well-earned the couple attempted emotional moments end up being. I also liked the ending, which confused or frustrated a couple members of the premiere audience.
 
After finding distribution, the first thing the "A.C.O.D." team needs to do is give their film a new name. I've seen the movie. I get it. But the effort put into making sure people understand that your movie isn't "A Cod: The Story of a Fish" could be put into making it clear that "Adult Children of Divorce" is reasonably funny. Oh and don't take it too personally if weary critics call the movie "sitcom-y." There are far worse things to be.
 
 
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Daniel Fienberg
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A long-time member of the TCA Board and a longer-time blogger of "American Idol," Dan Fienberg writes about TV, except for when he writes about movies or sometimes writes about the Red Sox. But never music. He would sound stupid talking about music.
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