Too-cute 'Ira & Abby' needs a little help
"Ira & Abby" is like its characters: nice with a lot of problems. A neurotic psychology PhD candidate gets dumped by his shrink, goes for a gym membership, and after a six-hour tour of the facilities accepts the kooky sales rep's instant marriage proposal. He's Ira (Chris Messina), the son of Manhattan analysts - Judith Light and Robert Klein - who are mystified by his spontaneity. She's Abby (Jennifer Westfeldt). She comes from far more bohemian, but equally moneyed, stock. Her folks - Frances Conroy and Fred Willard - write television commercials, and they're warm where Ira's are cold. You've seen this sitcom pilot before.
Westfeldt wrote the script. She also wrote "Kissing Jessica Stein," another romantic comedy of ambivalence, experimentation, and haste. And there's a kernel of resonance in both movies. They're smart but there's no imagination. Here the director, Robert Cary, keeps things moving at a breezy clip for the first 25 minutes.
After the wedding, the movie's gears start cranking as the bliss on the days-old relationship begins to tarnish and the characters really get to know each other. Westfeldt has written "Ira & Abby" into a pretzel. The crazy coincidences are unbearably mechanical - a lot of them involve Ira's ex-girlfriend (Maddie Corman). The scraps of satire are obtuse. And attempts to turn all this into a dual essay on the ebb and flow of attraction and the vicissitudes of love don't deepen the comedy. You're just more aware that this movie is incurably cute, even about adultery and the strategic withholdings that, in a marriage, lead to distrust.
The movie does come up with one inspired scene in which all the characters and their shrinks, including Jason Alexander, Donna Murphy, David Margulies, and Chris Parnell, have an epic group therapy session. The actors do appear to be enjoying themselves. Messina will always have a place in my heart for playing Ted, the hopelessly normal suit Claire Fisher decides to spend the rest of her life with on "Six Feet Under." Here he survives being stuck with a stammering, fidgety shtick and Westfeldt's charm offensive.
Nothing about her should be funny. As the mercifully canceled ABC show "Notes From the Underbelly" demonstrated, Westfeldt's face, with its pointed, delicately pinched features, doesn't scream "comedy." But she goes for it anyway, playing Abby as a breathy, free-spirited dingbat (she's a society girl who seems bred in Berkeley). And I laughed - even when she volunteers to collect cash for an armed and oddly sensitive subway thug. But it gets easier to resist her, mostly because Abby's openness seems childish and pathological. The movie often gets close to the embarrassing truth about this marriage, then retreats. If we're being honest about this woman, though, she doesn't need a husband. She needs a much better shrink.
Correction: Because of a reporting error, a review of the movie "Ira & Abby" in yesterday's Weekend section said that the ABC series "Notes from the Underbelly," which stars one of the movie's leads, is no longer on the air. The series resumes broadcasting this winter.