Comedy can succeed based on either its relatability or sheer absurdity, and “A.C.O.D.” favors the former approach, while not entirely forgoing the latter. Within its first few moments, this movie informs us that 54% of people are adult children of divorce, or A.C.O.D. Statistically, you’re likely to fall within that group (or closely know someone who does), making many of the jokes and observations here hit perhaps a little too close to home, though not too closely not to laugh.
One such A.C.O.D. is Carter (Adam Scott), who is helping his younger brother, Trey (Clark Duke), plan his wedding. The hitch isn’t that Trey has only been dating his girlfriend (Valerie Tian) for a few months, but instead its that Carter and Trey’s parents can’t be in the same room together. Carter’s plans to get his mother (Catherine O’Hara) and father (Richard Jenkins) on civil terms backfires, illuminating his own issues with commitment.
Seeking some guidance and perspective, he returns to speak with his childhood therapist Dr. Judith (Jane Lynch), but she reveals she isn’t a therapist at all. Instead, Carter was an unknowing participant in a case study that was used as part of her bestselling book “Children of Divorce.” She agrees to help Carter, but only if she can use his story to write a follow-up book called, you guessed it, “Adult Children Of Divorce.” As Carter struggles with this revelation, along with his brother’s impending wedding, trust issues with his girlfriend (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), his father’s difficult third wife (Amy Poehler) and his parents’ complicated relationship, he begins to wonder if he really is the mess that Dr. Judith predicted he would be decades ago in her book. And so begins a path in which he not only has to mend the relationship between his parents, but also reconcile his own past.
First-time director Stu Zicherman deserves the most praise just for assembling this cast, and particularly for giving Scott such a big role. These are astonishingly talented people who do most of the heavy lifting. We’d probably be entertained if the cast toplined the next Happy Madison production. That said, while this isn’t a genius comedy full of wit, it’s a significant step up for Zicherman, who previously wrote “Elektra” and the two minor J.J. Abrams shows “What About Brian” and “Six Degrees.” Co-writer Ben Karlin has a better pedigree – ”The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” and “Modern Family” – and the film shares some of the ABC sitcom’s approach to family comedy: all the bitter is outweighed by the sweet. Zicherman and Karlin’s dialogue is fun and occasionally riotous, particularly when the lines are coming out of Poehler’s mouth. Being the one person standing out in this group is a feat, and Poehler manages to be blonde head and petite shoulders above her costars. Her character Sondra is no one you’d like to know, but you want to spend more time with her here. We’re willing to watch her wreak more havoc in the life of Carter, if only for a few more minutes of screentime.
Jenkins and O’Hara play perfectly off one another whether, playing their hate for each with rage-fueled perfection, and later hitting the notes of weary older wisdom they’re supposed to. Duke and Jessica Alba (as a fellow part of the divorce study) are the weak links here: Duke is enjoyable enough, but it appears to be the same part we’ve seen him playing in most other films, while Alba’s tough-street-kid-all-grown-up is a subplot too many, and isn’t given much to work with. As the lead, Scott is well cast, but it’s ultimately not the most memorable role or movie for the actor. He doesn’t stretch a great deal (which isn’t surprising, given that he was the top choice for the role according to Zicherman) and instead plays the dry, sarcastic part of Carter with ease.
Most of the film is lighthearted, despite its theoretically weighty subject matter, but “A.C.O.D.’ waits until the credits sequence of real people talking about their experiences as A.C.O.D. to bring its long-gestating gut punch. Some of the stories are funny, while some actually sting. Throughout its runtime, “A.C.O.D.” seems to closely share the experience of those who fit the title, but it’s in these final minutes where we see the most heartache in the film. It’s a tonal contrast to the rest of the movie that’s a bit jarring, and it’s the only thing that really lingers in the hours and days following our viewing. [B]