Saturday, January 30, 2010

It's Complicated, a Review

Let's cut to the chase: Meryl Streep is a National Treasure, and when she dies she will have to be stuffed and displayed in the Smithsonian. If James Cameron would "performance capture" Meryl Streep, she could play ALL the roles in ALL American movies over the next 50 years, and they would ALL be better for it.

Alec Baldwin is riding a second wave of success, fueled by "30 Rock" and you can see him determined to just love what he is doing. Since Streep famously enjoys acting, this is a great match up--a rom-com for the menopausal. Which is about all it is--light on actual human emotion but as glossy as a Crate and Barrel catalogue. It's fun, it's frothy, it's like merangue or pop rocks--glitters for a few moments but has no real substance.

You probably know the set up: Baldwin and Streep play Jake and Jane Adler, married for 20 years, divorced for 10. Jake married his much younger mistress and is taking a second trip through the hell years of young children and fertility treatments. The last of their three children has finally moved out of Jane's house, and the 22 year old youngest is graduating from college. While in New York for the graduation, Jake and Jane have dinner, drink too much, and end up in bed together. Jake thinks it's great, and Jane goes to throw up.

Back home in Santa Barbara, Jake keeps coming around, bullying his way back into Jane's life as much as back into her bed. Jane starts out conflicted, then decides to enjoy it, then changes her mind, then changes it back again, and yadda yadda comedy conventions.


(I don't know why I do that--because I always talk about the ending of everything. Anyway--)

In the end, however, Jane decides Jake isn't her future, and he takes that pretty well. She gets a second chance at the shy and nebbishy Steve Martin (?!?!?), a relationship that was all but scuttled by Jake's reappearance in her life.

And it was fun, and it was frothy, but. . . .

And there is always a "but."

"It's Complicated" straddles so many lines so awkwardly, that I am inclined to believe that the movie might have been scripted as one thing, and edited as another. In the end, it's not a bad movie, but it's not really a rom-com, and it has the tantilizing sense of having been this close! to being something truly original. Something that explored the fall-out of a mid-life crisis ten years later, on the occasion of a second mid-life crisis. And oddly, it looks like Nancy Meyers might actually have had more insight into Jake's situation than Jane's.

From the bits of information dropped throughout the movie, we discover that while in his late 40s, Jake had an affair with a woman half his age, divorced his wife and married the mistress. After about four years, the new wife ("Agness," played by Lake Bell) ran off with another man, had a baby with him, then came back to Jake with the "hell child" Pedro. Now she wants another baby, this time with Jake, but he's got fertility issues and so his life has gotten dreary and stressful. Pedro is an unpleasant child, and neither Agness nor Jake seem to have much time for him. Jake is a partner in his law firm, and is ready to slow down his work life, but can't because Agnes thinks they need a bigger house and another baby.

In contrast, Jane's life looks pretty charmed. The kids are great and well launched. She owns a restaurant that is apparently doing incredibly well--so much so that she is building a huge addition so she can have her dream kitchen. And a really big bedroom that brings in the morning sun. And only one sink in the bathroom. Sure, Jake's still got more money than Jane does, but she's not poor by any stretch, and the rest of her life looks fabulous. She's past the years of raising small kids, she's past worrying about her career. Jake has all the problems of a young man with a young family, but he's too old to work that hard any more.

But wait! you say. This is a Nancy Meyers movie! This is supposed to be a movie about Jane! So you would think. But really, how complicated is Jane's life? She's divorced. Her kids are all out of the house. If she gets back together with her ex-husband, it's really her own choice. On the other hand, Jake's the one with the compelling story. Why did he cheat? Why did he pick Agness anyway--she's pretty harsh, demanding, and generally unpleasant. Why did he take her back and why is he raising this other man's child?

What seems to have happened is that he tried to cheat age by marrying a younger woman, but now sees the benefits of life he left behind. So, like any spoiled man-child, he tries to escape his current unhappy life for the fantasy of a different one. Toward the end of the movie, he claims he's left Agness for Jane. What Meyers shows us is Jane's reaction. The real drama is in the scenes we don't see--how Agness discovered the affair, their confrontation, Jake's decision to leave, etc. etc. That is where the heart of the drama lives.

But wait! There's more! Early in the film, Meyers has two scenes where Jane hangs out with her three best friends. In the first one, the talk is all that Jane needs to start having sex and dating (in that order apparently). In the second scene, she confesses having an affair with Jake, which is treated like karmic payback for Agness. The friends then disappear entirely, and when Jane wants any further relationship advice, she goes to see her therapist.

Again, this choice cheats the audience out of the real drama of the situation. These women have been her friends since before the divorce, so they clearly have feelings about the wisdom of her "taking back" the guy who cheated on her, and who is currently cheating on his wife with her. There is some snappy dialogue about how they all still hate Agness, so Jane gets a pass for stealing her husband, but really? Why would these alleged friends want to see Jane go backwards like that? None of them points out that this is a bad idea? That Jake is a manipulative bastard and she'd be better off without him?

Instead, Meyers gives us a sort of generic "you go girl, you deserve this" support group, when real female friendships of that length of time would surely be less superficial. Wouldn't they? I mean, schadenfreude is all very well and fun, but Jane is their friend, and they wouldn't want to see her get hurt again would they?

There is a great deal that is unsavory about the relationship between Jane and Jake. I can suspend disbelief, and possibly even believe, that the two of them might end up in bed together at their youngest child's college graduation weekend. But while Jake is exulting in his virility, Jane is busy throwing up and deeply regretting what she's done. Back in California, Jake pushes himself past her reservations, and again she's unhappy and appalled by what she's done. In fact, it's not clear what, if anything, she is getting out of this relationship. He pushes her around, eats her good cooking, guilts her into taking care of him, manipulates the kids into making her give him what he wants--has she learned nothing in the 10 years she's been mercifully free of him? Like what it feels like to NOT be pushed around like that?

The movie I would have liked to see would have actually been about adults in this situation. Alex Baldwin jealously peeking into her windows while she's having dinner with Steve Martin? It's not funny, and it's especially not funny for characters in their 50s. I wanted to see Meryl Streep confront this emotional leech of an ex-husband and give him the benefit of her decade of life without him. That would have been satisfying!

A word about the kids as well. In the movie's present, they are 22, 25 and 27, and the oldest is planning her wedding. Which means at the time of the divorce, they were 12, 15 and 17. They claim to be damaged by the divorce, they claim to be surprised to see their parents behaving amicably after "10 years of not being able to be in the same room." But Meyers utter fails to show us any damage. The daughter planning her wedding has no qualms or fears about marriage, despite the fact that her parents apparently had an acrimonious divorce. The youngest keeps asking if Dad can't stay over, "he can stay in my room" when Mom doesn't want him around--and then they all turn against Jane when it seems like the two of them might get back together. There's no emotional sense to the way these kids act: they are more or less merely plot devices.

And poor John Krasinski--in one extended sequence of TMI, he spots his future mother-in-law and father-in-law sneaking into a hotel, kissing in the elevator, and his first reaction is to hide it all from his fiancee. Why? Why is this a secret he has to keep, and why does he have to be "comical" in his clumsy attempts to keep her from finding out what is going on? If I were in her shoes, and I discovered my fiance had deliberately kept me in the dark about something like that--something where he had NO reason to be involved, and I had EVERY reason to know about it--I'd be questioning whether I was marrying a carbon copy of my manipulative and bullying father.

It's a sign of the charm of these actors that they can act like such unbelievable idiots, and we continue to like them. And the movie is lovely to look at. And there is a rather clever bit where Jake decides to pose himself suggestively on Jane's bed, with only her laptop to screen his man bits. Brilliantly, Jane has been using that computer to video message with her architect, and the three way screaming is truly humorous.

Baldwin is to be commended on his bravery: with his meaty man boobs and solid round belly, swathed in salt-and-pepper body hair, he is far from the Hollywood ideal of a sexy man. And yet, there is not a hint of self-consciousness in his performance. After the "nekkid in my ex-wife's bed" stunt goes horribly wrong, he confesses "I thought you would find me irresistible. It never even occurred to me that you wouldn't." And we believe him.

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