In a recent New York Times profile by Margy Rochlin, Krysten Ritter, ex-model and co-writer/star of “L!fe Happens,” talks about the film as her labor of love. She flinches when mixed reviews are mentioned, claiming the film “shouldn’t be reviewed” and “All that anybody should say about this film is ‘Good for you, girls, go get ‘em.’ — and that it’s adorable.”
The very first scene in Kat Coiro’s romantic comedy features Ritter and Kate Bosworth as best friends Kim and Deena, simultaneously bursting from their respective bedrooms in their underwear, asking each other if they have a condom. With both underequipped, they raid the house until Deena finds a sole prophylactic, forcing Kim to engage her lover sans protection. The next scene, one year later, again features Kim and Deena, who share a gorgeous two-floor house in sunny Los Angeles, as they cruise in their car and rap along to Chamillionaire’s “Ridin’ Dirty.” As the opening credits dance to the beat of the song, you’ll be forgiven for wondering when it’s meant to get “adorable.”
The punch line to this sequence is that we learn that Kim has a baby boy in the backseat. That fateful night has resulted in Kim, Deena and Laura (Rachel Bilson) welcoming a fourth roommate, one that clearly cannot bathe, feed or clean up after himself. In her early twenties, Kim is nonetheless displeased by the fact that she’s now a mother, and her youth is forever gone. While Kim has done an admirable job keeping herself busy but sane, “L!fe Happens” asks if a young woman can be a mother and still have a manageable, semi-responsible social life.
Because it is a romantic comedy, the film immediately declares it has no interest in answering this question. Fed up having to balance her not-very-demanding part-time job and her motherhood without adequate support (dad’s on a possibly permanent surfing tour overseas), she tells the type of little white lie that’s powered a generation of contrived romantic comedies. Nicolas (Geoff Stults) is handsome, broad-shouldered and bland and when he suggests he doesn’t particularly care for kids, she claims the baby of the house belongs to someone else.
“L!fe Happens” does seem unusually attuned to the struggles of being a young mother without the responsibilities of family. Kim’s post-birth Lamaze class notably bristles when she reveals she’s there to get in shape for dating’s sake, and the tensions that arise when her roommates’ schedules remain too fluid to accommodate babysitting duties feel based in real disappointment as opposed to manufactured tension. But for every moment that rings true, there’s another listless bit of farce, like Kim’s crude, demanding boss (Kristen Johnston), an aging West Hollywood vamp in bad makeup and hair extensions who scoffs at Kim’s hopes and dreams.
It’s a fundamental problem that “L!fe Happens” is simply too overstuffed to work, ignoring needless scenes meant to showcase senior billing players Johnston and Jason Biggs (as a somewhat sloppy divorce lawyer who fades away in the second act). At first it seems as if the film is going to deal with Kim’s blossoming relationship with Nicolas, but it soon starts to focus on the tension in the relationship between her and Deena. However, part of their disagreements stem from the stress of living with friends, needlessly complicated by third-wheel Laura, who seems to be a part of the story in order to let the underused Bilson play dumb-bimbo-who-might-not-be-dumb.
Furthermore, it’s not as if the film was gutting it to the final runtime with the exploration of Deena’s own lifestyle. As an up-and-coming feminist writer, we’re treated to scenes of her networking and meeting with the likes of Lauren Conrad (a total failure at playing herself). Deena eventually gets close with Nicolas’ argyle-clad best friend played by Justin Kirk, a skeevy sketch of a character that allows her to carry on an alpha female-beta male relationship. It’s a distraction, and on its own, it’s not enough to fill the b-plot to a theatrically released movie. It’s not even enough to fill a fifteen-minute interstitial on the OWN network.
Ritter, who has seemingly trademarked the role of bitchy best friend (see ABC‘s “Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23” for a perfect example), doesn’t seem to have faith in herself as an actress, given the meandering ensemble nature of the film. It’s too bad — she knows her way around a punchline, but can also play wounded with her doe eyes and gangly, seemingly underfed frame. She’s conventionally attractive, but also a bit gawky, which lends itself well to physical comedy, creating a stark physical contrast with her light-and-dark features paired against Bosworth’s classic cornfed blond starlet-ness. It takes the first three quarters of the film to realize we’re not meant to be rooting for Kim as much as we’re supposed to hope she mends fences with Deena when, no offense to Miss Bosworth, but Ritter’s Kim is a far more likeable character trapped in a fourth-rate sitcom of a movie. [D+]