Toward the end of recently crowned rom-com classic Crazy, Stupid, Love, there is a big plot twist. For those of you who have not seen the film, I will not spoil it here. In vague terms, one of the characters from the main subplot is related to the characters from the main plot. The twist works because the hints dropped about this connection beforehand are subtle. Meanwhile, the aftermath of its reveal makes the story more interesting for the protagonist of the film, played by Steve Carell. This plot advancement creates genuine surprise and moves the plot in a more intriguing direction.
J.C. Khoury probably wished that his new romantic comedy, All Relative, which hinges much of its story on a big surprise and a colossal plot contrivance, had the same success. Sadly, not only is the revelation obvious – the title even drops a whopper of a hint – but this development is not dealt with in a way that is funny or emotionally authentic.
All Relative begins with a glimpse of the Manhattan skyline over soft jazz music, reminding one of how much more profound and perky a Woody Allen comedy with the same plotline could have been. We meet Harry (Live Free or Die Hard’s Jonathan Sadowski), a woeful bachelor in the big city still reeling from a break-up with his fiancée a year prior. He is out bowling on the town with his pal, Jared (Al Thompson), when the grad student catches the eye of Grace (Sara Paxton). After a nice time together, Grace disappoints the lovelorn Harry when she tells him she is currently seeing another guy.
Defeated, Harry decides to retreat to the bar. There, he catches the eye of a horny, slender older blonde, Maren (Connie Nielsen) and promptly flirts with her before taking her home. She bears a remarkable similarity to the younger woman who stranded Harry at her doorstep earlier in the night. By now, one should figure out what this eventual end-of-first-act plot turn will reveal.
If you guessed that Maren and Grace are mother and daughter, then your prize should be skipping All Relative and renting a romantic comedy classic in its place. If you are still interested, though, in finding out how Harry gets out of this troubling ménage-a-trois, just know that it involves a lot of scenes where characters almost tell each other the truth but back out of it at the last second. You know that rom-com contrivance about how a misunderstanding breaks apart the lead guy and girl? All Relative may feature one of the least convincing variations of this genre convention ever committed to the screen.
The middle act of this interminable comedy, where the biggest twist is that it runs only 85 minutes, is an extended visit at Grace’s parents’ lavish home in Westchester. (It is a house that is luxuriously furnished and filled with family pictures, ones where you can often see members of the crew or their shadows reflecting off the glass frames.) Maren and her husband, architecture exec Phil (David Aaron Baker), are going through marital difficulties and he cannot understand why his wife is getting so flustered at Harry’s arrival. The tone of these scenes at the family home moves from jaunty situational humor more akin to Meet the Parents – in one moment directly taken from that comedy, Harry listens through a vent of Grace’s parents arguing about him – to limp, sentimental family drama.
When Phil and Maren try to clear the air about their past indiscretions that have interfered with their marriage, the dialogue is so rote, one could try predicting the lines of dialogue before the characters say them and end up getting many of them right. All of the characters, meanwhile, are nervous and unable to find the right thing to say. Although poor communication can sometimes create some manic comedic situations, the dull pacing of the scenes at Grace’s home bores us instead of engages us. Maren and Harry cannot figure out the right way to explain the complicated situation with either a light laugh or with a serious talk, and sadly, neither can the writer/director.
The only sparks All Relative can ignite come from Nielsen, who clearly savors a shift from the thornier dramas she regularly stars in. Her throaty, accented voice and wide-eyed stare lends a touch of manic personality to enliven the bland-looking, leisurely paced film. Sadowski, meanwhile, is a second-rate Josh Radnor, charmless and not all that great with comic timing. He plays a man who conveniently expresses all of his feelings out loud, because that’s what the script demands. Furthermore, Paxton gets almost nothing to do. Grace is a dull character treated more as an obstacle to create plot contrivances than a person with motivations and desires.
Worst of all is Thompson, playing a poor stereotype of a stereotype. As the “token black friend,” the actor exists entirely to motivate Harry back into bed with beautiful women. When he hears about his friend’s dilemma, Jared’s first reaction is to coax Harry into a threesome with the mother and daughter. In the first scene, Harry even tells his pal not to judge how successful a relationship is based on the final outcome (i.e., getting into bed with the woman) but rather the journey. However, to judge All Relative by its pedestrian path and unconvincing ending is to realize that neither is much of a success.
Dull, dim-witted and with scenes that drag long past their appropriate endpoint, All Relative is a pedestrian romantic comedy that wastes a good cast.