A.C.O.D., which stands for "Adult Children of Divorce," may be one of the grimmest movies you'll see this year. Those expecting a fluffy, light-hearted, comic-romantic romp involving, say, mistaken identities, hurt feelings, farcical misunderstandings, and harmless pratfalls, leading to the triumph of monogamous married bliss, will probably want to make a beeline for the Xanax after seeing this one. "Hurt feelings" is the only modifier that really applies.
The story revolves around Carter (played by TV star Adam Scott), a nervous, thirtyish, single urbanite trying to balance his restaurant business and a stable long-term relationship with his girlfriend Lauren (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) against lingering memories of a disappointing childhood of ruined birthdays and feuding parents. The idea is that Carter's folks hate each other so intensely that now he, a member of the "least parented, least nurtured generation," has cold feet about starting a family of his own. Extrapolate this concept and we can see that ultimately the survival of the species is threatened.
Normally Carter could handle this, but suddenly his younger brother Trey (Clark Duke) is preparing to get married, forcing the issue and pushing the older sibling into panic mode. A wedding means that their estranged father, Hugh (Richard Jenkins), and mother, Melissa (Catherine O'Hara), who loathe and despise each other, will have to co-exist in the same space for an afternoon. Romantic comedies routinely hinge on dilemmas such as this, but Carter's predicament has a sharper edge than most because of his neediness, and the irresponsibility of his role models.
Filmmaker Stuart Zicherman, a TV veteran (Six Degrees, Lights Out), wrote the movie with fellow TV hand Ben Karlin (Modern Family, The Colbert Report). They heap such an enormous amount of abuse and humiliation on poor Carter — romantic-comedy abuse and humiliation, but still — that we can only cringe behind our popcorn tub. Father Hugh is a sardonic satyr, forever eyeing the waitstaff. His latest wife is a vain harpy named Sondra (Amy Poehler), who also happens to be the landlady of Carter's restaurant, constantly threatening to evict him if she feels disrespected. Jenkins and Poehler are glibly, maliciously wonderful in their roles, as is O'Hara as domineering matron Melissa. The only thing Hugh and Melissa seem to be able to do in each other's presence is to snarl. Or so it seems on the surface. Further, it's made clear that Carter and Trey's childish, self-centered parents don't know the first thing about either one of their sons and their feelings. They're all strangers to each other in this family.
Writers Zicherman and Karlin push the emotional stress to extremes, and behind the talented cast Carter's suffering triggers trickles, if not torrents, of ironic laughs. The ubiquitous Jane Lynch costars as Carter's childhood shrink, yet another selfish authority figure unable or unwilling to throw the guy a line. When Carter tries, in his awkward way, to ask Lauren to marry him, even she backs out. The only other innocent characters in the movie are stepfather Gary, Melissa's kindly husband (character actor Ken Howard), and happy couple Trey and Kieko (Valerie Tian). Melissa's attitude toward Kieko's parents in the restaurant is guaranteed to cause the hair on audience members' necks to stand on end.
Imagine a Ben Stiller relationship comedy from ten years ago, with worse timing and more bitterness. Actor Adams carries the load of this festival of infidelity tentatively, with caution, but then that's the only way to approach the material. People who avidly read self-help books will probably relate to Carter's turmoil. The rest of us can admire the skillful nastiness, with the hope that somehow, Carter and Lauren and Trey and Kieko can make their getaway and resume their search for happiness. For us, it's easier. We walk out of the theater.