[This is a re-post of my review from the 2013 SXSW Film Festival. I Give It a Year opens tomorrow in limited release.]
Dan Mazer‘s I Give It a Year is the rom-com in reverse and two rom-coms in one. Mazer takes the difficult task of showing a marriage fall apart, and turns it into a surprisingly funny and witty comedy that never feels cynical. And it’s absolutely easy to be cynical when it comes to marriage because of the 50% divorce rate. But like any good comic writer, Mazer finds the humor in an unlikely topic, and succeeds with sharp dialogue, talented actors, and wisely keeping the tone of the film the same as an average romantic comedy.
The wedding of Josh (Rafe Spall) and Nat (Rose Byrne) starts with a bad omen as the priest has a coughing fit when trying to pronounce, “Husband and wife.” From there, we cut forward nine months to the couple seeing a marriage counselor (Olivia Colman) to try and figure out how it all went wrong, and if they can salvage their union. Mazer then brings us back to show how the marriage quickly became a series of small battles, resentments, and how opposites may attract, but that doesn’t mean they’ll stay attracted. Nat’s eye starts wandering to her handsome, debonair marketing client Guy (Simon Baker) while Josh’s feelings for his friend/former-girlfriend Chloe (Anna Faris) begin to resurface.
I Give It a Year is extremely British in its comic sensibilities. There are plenty of awkward moments mediated by quick-witted responses, some farcical elements, and a comedy of manners. There are some scenes that probably could have been dropped like Chloe trying to engage in and then extricate herself from a threesome (although the gifted Faris does manage to get laughs from the situation), but most of the movie brings us back around to the honest conflict between Josh and Nat. They know they got married too quickly, they’re wrong for each other, and they don’t want to end up like their bitter married friends Naomi (Minnie Driver) and Hugh (Jason Flemyng). Josh and Nat’s predicament is made worse by the fact that they’re being drawn to other people.
For the audience, this removes the stakes, but leaves us wondering how Mazer can possibly find a happy ending in divorce. No one is really a fan of divorce. We don’t have divorce parties (although at the 50% divorce rate, it could be a burgeoning industry) and Hallmark hasn’t gotten around to making “Happy Divorce!” cards. Although the marriage in I Give It a Year has been given the a ridiculously easiest out (their true loves are standing by the exit), Mazer makes sure no one is the villain. Josh does end up more on the bumbling and embarrassing side while Nat is slightly duplicitous and openly hostile, but she’s also being wooed by the gorgeous Simon Baker. At one point, even Josh says to Guy, “I could eat you up with a spoon.”
The film is packed with great one-liners, but never gets bogged down in going for one more joke at the expense of moving the story forward. Mazer knows how to best utilize the comic talents of his cast without letting them slow down the plot (yes, I am taking jabs Judd Apatow movies). Stephen Merchant, who plays Josh’s friend Dan, could riff through the entire movie saying horribly offensive and inappropriate things, but Mazer keeps the role small, which makes Merchant’s performance even more valuable. The same goes for Colman, who continues to amaze me in every movie she does. I knew she could do broad comedy because of Hot Fuzz, but she’s even better here (this isn’t to mention her scene-stealing performance in Hyde Park on Hudson and her devastating dramatic work in Tyrannosaur). All four leads are terrific (although Baker is the odd-man out since the script doesn’t give him any comic material), and Mazer makes sure the movie is about their story rather than simply milking side characters and set-ups until they’re exhausted.
Being in the rom-com genre is the biggest strength and biggest weakness of I Give It a Year. It keeps the warm, fuzzy, and safe feeling the romantic comedy provides, so it’s not really subverting the genre as much as it’s giving it a fresh spin. Mazer manages to find the warmth and comedy in undoing a marriage, so this isn’t Blue Valentine but with more vagina jokes. But if divorce is becoming the norm and losing its social stigma, then I Give It a Year decides that maybe we should stop bemoaning the death of marriage and start telling jokes at the wake.