When it comes to plotting, writer/director Josh Boone doesn't score any points for originality with his debut feature Stuck in Love, but he does have a good ear for dialogue and has cast his first film well.
Greg Kinnear plays William Borgens, a successful novelist who hasn't written anything as good as his breakthrough work, but maintains a career thanks to name recognition. He's the patriarch of a dysfuntional and broken family that also consists of his cynical college-age daughter Samantha (Lily Collins), who is about to publish her first novel, his too-good-for-his-own-good teen son Rusty (Nat Wolff), who idolizes Stephen King, and his ex-wife Erica (Jennifer Connelly), whom he still fixates on to the degree that he spies on her home. The movie details how over the course of 12 months -- the story opens and closes with a Thanksgiving dinner -- these characters wrestle with truths about themselves and their various romantic entanglements.
If you're going to cast the part of an earnestly smug, prickly writer who slowly reveals his huge heart, you could do much worse than Greg Kinnear, an actor who has grown from playing one-note jovial smart-asses to flawed but still quite likable jackasses. That sounds like a backhanded compliment, but it's not meant to be. He does strong work here, keeping William's pain close enough to the surface so that we can quickly see why his self-centeredness comes from fear and not ego. He also has a handful of scenes with Kristen Bell as his sharp-tongued occasional lover that are hilarious for their emotional directness and frank banter.
Lily Collins is nothing like her portrayal of Snow White in the previous year's Mirror Mirror. Here, she plays someone whose overpowering smarts make her a formidable foe for a would-be boyfriend; with her steely demeanor and protective emotional shell, she's reminiscent of Ellen Page. Her continued rejections of a sweet classmate (Logan Lerman) slowly falter as she learns the truth about her parents' complicated split and begins to realize that sealing herself off from emotional pain is no guarantee that it won't hit her anyway.
Rusty, who's such a sap that his father more or less orders him to get into trouble so that he'll have experiences to write about, falls for a girl his age who turns out to have problems that make the Borgens clan look like the Cleavers or the Huxtables. Wolff plays his kindhearted character too earnestly -- he's not as engaging as the two stronger-willed members of his immediate family -- but he does nail the funniest scene in the movie (which involves a cameo too good to spoil).
Boone isn't yet a good enough scribe to convince us that he knows something about writers -- there isn't a plot turn or scene you don't see coming -- but he does show a talent for creating sympathetic, flawed characters and finding the right actors to embody them. Stuck in Love is a fine first film that, if Boone is lucky, won't remain his best work.