[This is a re-post of my review from the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. A.C.O.D. opens today in limited release.]
In his feature directorial debut, A.C.O.D., Stu Zicherman has taken the premise for the episode of a sitcom, and turned it into a film that’s not only funny, but also surprisingly relatable for audience members represented by the title’s acronym, “Adult Children of Divorce”. Speaking as an A.C.O.D., my parents never had the comical, over-the top fights featured in the movie, but Zicherman and co-writer Ben Karlin manage to work in a strong, emotional center to a comedy that works in broad strokes. The movie may share the same plotline as sitcom episode, but thanks to its excellent cast and willingness to push its protagonist to emotionally unpleasant places, A.C.O.D. works for kids from broken and unbroken homes alike.
Carter (Adam Scott) is a happy, successful restaurant manager, and has managed to find a reasonable peace between his selfish, angry parents Hugh (Richard Jenkins) and Melissa (Catherine O’Hara) after the couple bitterly split when Carter was nine. Hugh and Melissa still hate each other even though they’ve moved on to new spouses Sondra (Amy Poehler) and Gary (Ken Howard), respectively. When his younger brother Trey (Clark Duke) decides to get married, Carter finds himself forced to be the peacemaker again, but this time he does his job too well and his parents start hooking up. Carter descends further into madness when he discovers his childhood therapist Dr. Judith (Jane Lynch) was actually a researcher using him for a book about children of divorce, and now she wants to interview him for a follow-up, “A.C.O.D.”.
The plot of A.C.O.D. is nothing new for sitcom fans. It’s been around for decades, and, oddly enough, was recently the plot of an episode of Parks and Recreation entitled “Ben’s Parents”. In the episode, Ben (Scott) is freaking out because he knows his parents hate each other and it will be hell getting them in the same room. It’s a credit to Scott’s charm and charisma that he can basically play almost the same situation in another project and still give a terrific performance. Scott does “flustered” so well, and that’s basically his attitude for over half of A.C.O.D.
It also helps that he’s acting opposite an amazing cast. Jenkins continues to be one of my favorite actors, and he shows that he can play a completely rotten, self-centered jackass, but we love watching him every time he’s on screen. It wouldn’t be right to say that Lynch “steals” every scene she’s in since Scott is so generous working with his co-stars, but she absolutely lights up the screen in her minor role. The biggest problem with A.C.O.D.‘s cast is there’s not enough great stuff to go around. Poehler is barely in the film, but there’s really no place to beef up her screen time. There’s a lot of talent in the supporting cast, but this is Scott’s show.
What sets Carter apart from Ben is how Zicherman is willing to make his protagonist engage in morally questionable behavior. We sympathize with Carter, but A.C.O.D. has the emotional honesty to show how all the old bad feelings get dredged up when he’s sent back into crisis mode. When we’re adults, we can look back at our parents’ divorce, and understand that they’re flawed human beings like everyone else. But as a kid, we expect our parents to protect us instead of sending us into the middle of a war zone they created. I didn’t suffer anywhere near the level of trauma as Carter (after all, Zicherman is exaggerating the circumstances for maximum comic effect), but I haven’t forget the sting, and likely neither do other A.C.O.D.s
Making this kind of move helps elevate A.C.O.D. above being a 90-minute sitcom that played at film festival. The plot and the comedy don’t push the envelope, and there’s nothing particularly daring about the picture, but Zicherman has still created an enjoyable film where you could bring your parents (assuming all of you have grown up).