A movie that starts out with as much reckless romanticism as "Ira and Abby" has nowhere to go. But despite the unavoidable hiccups in tone, this very New York comedy helmed by Robert Cary and written by Jennifer Westfeldt, who also stars, seems poised to do strong business as a very mainstream indie, thanks to its name cast, precise performances and proven sitcom formula.

A movie that starts out with as much reckless romanticism as “Ira and Abby” has nowhere to go. But despite the unavoidable hiccups in tone, this very New York comedy helmed by Robert Cary (“Anything But Love”) and written by Jennifer Westfeldt (“Kissing Jessica Stein”), who also stars, seems poised to do strong business as a very mainstream indie, thanks to its name cast, precise performances and proven sitcom formula.

Ira Black (Chris Messina), a nebbishy, neurotic doctoral candidate in psychology and the child of two analysts (Judith Light, Robert Klein), can’t finish anything. Not his psychology dissertation, not his relationship with Lea (Maddie Corman), not even therapy (12 years, no results).

When his therapist dismisses him, Ira decides to remake his life. He joins a health club, where he meets Abby Willoughby (scribe Westfeldt). As the gym’s free-spirited salesperson and free-lance social worker, her ability to listen to other people’s problems makes her the therapist of the Stairmaster set.

Their chemistry is potent, and, almost immediately, Abby asks Ira to marry her. Fifty percent of marriages end in divorce, Abby says, so ours will have as good a chance as any. Ira — for whom such spontaneity is anathema — can’t come up with a good reason why not.

Thus, “Ira and Abby” is launched with an infectious elation, a no-guts-no-glory take on love that’s joyous — but where can it go?

It goes into a fatalistic summing up of marriage as an institution, a reflection on the human inability to accept happiness and an observation that what people need and want is someone to talk to.

In many ways, “Ira and Abby” is like deja vu all over again: Messina (“Six Feet Under”) recalls a younger Matthew Broderick. Westfeldt seems to be doing an homage to Lisa Kudrow on “Friends.” The Jewish Ira’s embrace by the beautiful shiksa Abby suggests the fulfillment of a Woody Allen daydream and the clash of cultures — Ira’s family vs. Abby’s hippie-ish parents (Fred Willard, Frances Conroy) — brings “Dharma & Greg” decidedly to mind.

As with many comedies of its ilk, “Ira and Abby” is salvaged to a large part by its supporting cast: Light is brilliant as Ira’s unsatisfied, Upper West Side, Gorgon-with-a-heart-of-gold mother. Klein delivers his lines in a way that wrings out every gem-like drop of comedic content.

Nonetheless, there’s a lot of what would be called stunt casting: Each time a familiar face shows up (Jason Alexander as a marriage counselor, “Saturday Night Live’s” Darrell Hammond and Chris Parnell as obsequious physicians), the mood of the movie is interrupted by theatricality rails.

Shot in breathtaking HD and making the most of its Manhattan settings, likeable “Ira and Abby” starts off deliriously, is derailed into reality, and finally settles into something in between.

Ira and Abby

Production

A Breakout Pictures production, in association with Team Todd. Produced by Brad Zions. Executive producers, Jennifer Westfeldt, Ilana Levine, Jorge M. Perez. Co-producer, Declan Baldwin. Directed by Robert Cary. Screenplay, Jennifer Westfeldt.

Crew

Camera (color, HD), Harlan Bosmajian; editor, Phillip J. Bartell; music, Marcelo Zarvos; production designer, Ray Kluga; set decorator, Catherine Davis; costume designer, Doug Hall; sound, Jay Nierenberg; associate producer, Stu Pollard; casting, Bernie Telsey, David Vaccari. Reviewed at Los Angeles Film Festival (competing), June 26, 2006. Running time: 100 MIN.

With

Ira Black - Chris Messina Abby Willoughby - Jennifer Westfeldt Lynne Willoughby - Frances Conroy Michael Willoughby - Fred Willard Arlene Black - Judith Light Seymour Black - Robert Klein Lea - Maddie Corman

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