Given that the arrested development subgenre of comedy is chiefly the domain of men and man children, it’s nice to see the field finally tackled from a refreshing female perspective. However, while an admirable vantage point of the trapped in adultlescence genus, “Laggies,” the new film by director Lynn Shelton, is often wildly implausible (even for a comedy), positions its sympathies in questionable places and is a mess of a movie that lands all over the place.
Megan (Keira Knightley) has a posse of pals from high school, which includes her patient and ineffectual boyfriend (Mark Webber) and her prissy, uptight best friend (Ellie Kemper, who needs to find a new archetype to try out stat). Initially BFFs forever, Megan’s lack of growth soon finds herself at odds from her friends, who are planning weddings, having babies and moving forward in their lives. Stunted, with zero direction, she barely works outside helping with her father’s (Jeff Garlin) tax business as a sign girl and she is the dictionary definition of coasting along and going nowhere. And after various mishaps at a friend’s wedding (something she just can’t relate to), Megan befriends the 16-year-old Annika (Chloë Grace Moretz) when her underage friends persuade her to buy them booze.
Dovetailing with this newfound unusual friendship, Megan panics when her boyfriend finally proposes, invents a lie about attending a weeklong get-your-shit-together seminar and retreats away from all responsibility by hiding out at Annika’s house. Of course, this all feels incredibly strange and odd to both the audience and Annika’s incredulous and probing lawyer father (played by Sam Rockwell).
“Laggies” has its charms, chief among them being without a doubt Sam Rockwell, who salvages the picture and gives it a much need B-12 shot of energy when he arrives late in the first act. His hilarious verve lifts up the tone of the picture, makes it funnier and even raises Knightley’s game that up until this point hasn’t been anything to write home about (and it's not the most likeable character to boot). And while unconventionally written—it begins squarely in the coming-of-age-far-too-late-in-
Veering off into lots of strange avenues that are sometimes endearing and often baffling, this is the first movie that Lynn Shelton hasn’t written and directed. Though one can hardly tell as it does possess many of the head-scratching problems that seem to always keep her films a few notches away from true greatness. The movie can’t get a grasp on tone, beginning as a broad comedy and then shifting into a more conventional, character-driven Lynn Shelton movie. And just as you're finally settling in, it dips again, clumsily attempting moments of serious gravitas that one doesn’t buy. It's just way too much for the movie, which feels minutely schizophrenic and it tends to buckle under the weight of all its various little mood changes.
Perhaps more troubling are some of the film’s messages. The movie definitely has a sympathetic ear for the twentysomething struggling to find themselves in a world that’s always looking for conventional trajectories of jobs, success and financial stability. Unsure of everything and what she wants to do with her life, and unwilling to face anything head on, it forces Megan to be more alienated from all the adults around. And it's here where the movie finds something of value to say (and perhaps makes it more plausible that she’s living on the floor of a random teenager friend's house). The problem is as Megan begins to discover who she is and what she wants out of life, the character reveals herself to be a borderline dysfunctional sociopath trampling all of those around her. Megan hides herself away from her fiancé to live with a teenager she barely knows and then start an illicit romance with her emotionally wounded father, eventually betraying them both.
In any other movie, Megan is akin to the disaster that is Anne Hathaway in “Rachel Getting Married” without all the ugly character traits, but she still breaks a lot of people’s lives, trust and hearts along the way. But it’s just a light comedy, right? Sure, but this is nevertheless disconcerting, especially when the film’s happy ending embraces all of her various mistakes with zero sense of consequence for her selfish and clueless actions.
But, despite how uneven and broad it can be at times, “Laggies” is occasionally really funny and charming. The always-terrific Rockwell (the unquestionable MVP of the movie) certainly helps as does the delightful little scene stealer Kaitlyn Dever from “Short Term 12.” Moretz also puts in one of her best performances as the bruised and wounded teenager looking for love, a friend, if not a mother; some semblance of an older female relation and guiding light in her life (Gretchen Mol briefly co-stars as her real mom).
With a bit more bite, “Laggies” could have been Lynn Shelton’s “Greenberg,” a sharper and better-observed comedy looking at the inert and dysfunctional. But as it is, “Laggies” ultimately ends up being a feel-good, crowd-pleasing comedy with little substantive texture (even Judd Apatow comedies go darker than this) that settles down on all the safe and expected places you might imagine it to. And a mostly cloying score by Ben Gibbard of Death Cab For Cutie does little to help the movie’s sunny and weightless tone (a shame since his “Kurt Cobain: About A Son” score was so good).
While Lynn Shelton films are usually a little messily drawn themselves, they’re often that way because they’re charting emotionally complex people with complicated lives. That sure applies to “Laggies” as well, but its patchy tone, plot, characters and sympathies make for a film that’s difficult to wholeheartedly endorse. Here’s hoping Shelton can get the mix right next time. [C+]