"Stuck in Love" seems, on its surface, like another male wish-fulfillment fantasy masquerading as a romantic comedy.
Women in the film seem to have more figured out. Characters played by Jennifer Connelly, Kristen Bell, Lily Collins and Liana Liberato alternately hurl themselves at, misuse, toss aside, and yet maintain their hold over the hapless menfolk -- Greg Kinnear, Nat Wolff and Logan Lerman.
And the men? They pine away -- "stuck" as it were, in a love that was or can never be.
But it's the variations in this seemingly trite collection of set-ups that unstick "Stuck." And the performances add poignancy to the coming-of-age / coming-to-grips-with-divorce situations and lift the picture to something more than a romantic time-filler.
Wolff ( "Admission") is Rusty, a teen living at home, on the beach with his semi-brooding divorced dad (Kinnear). Dad's a well-regarded author who hasn't written since Mom (Connelly) walked out on him. He sneaks up to the windows of her house and peeks at her new life.
Which drives his kids, especially his sharp, college-age daughter, Sam (Collins), batty. Dad still sets a place for Mom at Thanksgiving dinner.
Rusty longs for the attentions of classmate Kate (Liberato), but smart and cynical sister Sam has him pegged. He's like Dad, one of those "hopeless romantics" in a world that goes easier on realists.
"Put your heart on the line," the father urges his son. "A writer is the sum of his experiences. Go get some." He's been pushing both of his kids to write, and both have taken it up. Rusty writes moony poetry that might win the girl. But Sam?
"Life is only as meaningful as you fool yourself into thinking it is," Sam declares, announcing that she is about to become a published author herself -- at 19. How will her catty cynicism -- she's big on rough-and-tumble one-night-stands -- stand up to the ardent attentions of the pure-hearted Lou (Lerman)?
"You reek of romance and good intentions," she sneers. "We're not even in the same species."
But Lou, like all suitors in romantic comedies, persists.
First-time writer-director Josh Boone juggles a lot of characters and a lot of hurt in "Stuck in Love." Sam won't speak to her mother, Kate has problems Rusty is slow to pick up on, Lou has a hidden burden and Dad copes with divorce by having regular rolls in the sack with a married neighbor (Kristen Bell, amusingly on task and brazenly abrasive).
That juggling lets the picture drift into melodrama more than once. It loses track of Sam and Lou, the most interesting characters, which makes their story arc seem more abrupt than the others. Wolff is an engaging lead, but his story thread is the most maudlin and melodramatic of all. Kinnear has played so many mopey guys that it's become his "thing." And Connelly, a dead ringer for the woman we'd expect to be Lily Collins' mom, has an Oscar-winning gravity about her that makes her tough to buy in comic situations.
All of which stick to "Stuck in Love" and weigh it down. It's just romantic enough and barely funny enough to qualify as a romantic comedy. But it works, despite never being graceful or unstuck enough to take flight.
STUCK IN LOVE
Cast: Lily Collins, Nat Wolff, Greg Kinnear, Jennifer Connelly, Logan Lerman, Kristen Bell
Written and directed by Josh Boone. A Millennium release
Running time: 1:37
MPAA rating: R for language, teen drug and alcohol use, and some sexual content
Photo/Video credit: Millennium Entertainment