Thursday, December 24, 2009

It's Complicated: Is it too complicated?

It's Complicated (2009) • View trailer for It's Complicated
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: R, for drug content and frank sexual dialogue
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.24.09
Buy DVD: It's Complicated • Buy Blu-Ray: It's Complicated [Blu-ray]

Eyebrows are likely to lift, not far into It's Complicated, when Meryl Streep's Jane Adler speaks wistfully of a home remodel that finally will give her "the kitchen she's always dreamed of" ... a statement she makes while standing in a kitchen most of us would kill for, in a luxurious and rambling country home that resembles a presidential summer retreat.

Yes, writer/director Nancy Meyers' film is another one of those romantic comedies that we all can identify with so easily, since it involves only White People With More Money Than God. You'll not find a single African-American, Latino or Asian face in this entire picture, which makes it a rather curious throwback to the lavish Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers dance films of the 1930s.
Jake (Alec Baldwin, center right) and his much younger second wife, Agness
(Lake Bell, far right), are quite amused by the enthusiasm that Jane (Meryl
Streep) and Adam (Steve Martin) have brought to a party. But these giddy high
spirits aren't self-induced; Jane and Adam rather naughtily split a joint before
entering the room, in an effort to "take the edge off." They succeed...

Those pictures were intended to take audiences away, if only for a few hours, from the grim realities of the real-world Depression; to a degree, the ploy was successful. Funny thing, though; my reaction to It's Complicated and its financial largess involves far more irritation than capricious wish-fulfillment.

Jane apparently gets her bottomless bank account from her thriving bakery/restaurant, always packed to the gills even in these discouraging times. And while we can assume that ex-husband Jake (Alec Baldwin), a successful attorney, ponied up a substantial settlement during contentious divorce proceedings, many years ago, I'm still not sure this would justify such a house in tony Santa Barbara.

Such issues make Meyers' film feel oddly retro, as if it hopped a time machine from Hollywood's Golden Age. The core premise  divorcée embarks on a hot affair with her ex  has the potential for the sort of screwball comedy riffs delivered so well by the likes of Cary Grant and Irene Dunn, back in the day. (Appropriately enhanced by 21st century smutty dialogue, of course.)

But the "complicated" part of this film  the genuine pain and angst the affair brings both to its primary protagonists and a gaggle of secondary characters, notably Jane and Jake's three adult children  feels far more European. Indeed, at one point Jake even comments that he finds the situation "very French."

These two moods  American screwball comedy and sophisticated French sex farce  don't really mesh all that well. As a result, the film feels a bit "off" and unbalanced, although you may be at pains to identify the primary source of your dissatisfaction, upon exiting the theater.

On the other hand, Streep and Baldwin  ably supported by Steve Martin and John Krasinski  embrace this uneven material with the persuasive conviction we'd expect from top-flight stage actors in a production of King Lear. The cast is far superior to Meyers' screenplay, and this likely will make It's Complicated far more popular than it deserves to be.

The story kicks off when Jane and Jake, out of town and booked into the same hotel while attending their son's college graduation, agree to have a "friendly" dinner together. Actually, Jane is quite reluctant, but Jake  Baldwin working his considerable charm to the max  pushes the issue.

A few too many bottles of wine later, they wind up in bed together.

Only one problem, and a biggie: Jake's still married to the sultry and much younger Whole Earth type  Agness, played as a complete shrike by Lake Bell  for whom he dumped Jane in the first place. And while Jane appreciates the irony, during her occasional vengeful moments, she's actually far too intelligent to believe this affair is a good idea.

Alas, a lack of actual closure, all those years earlier  and Jane's honest curiosity over whether life ever offers valid second chances  trumps whatever wisdom she may have gained during that same time period. So she takes the plunge.

Aside from the unpalatable fact that Jake now lies constantly to Agness  and this is uncomfortable, even though we're supposed to hate her  matters get more tangled when Jane develops feelings for Adam (Steve Martin), the quite charming architect orchestrating the remodel that includes her 'dream kitchen.' Clearly, Jane and Adam are perfect for each other, and under better circumstances would become a couple pretty quickly.

But with Jake and the affair in the picture ... well, as the title suggests, things get "complicated." Meaning that hearts will break.

By now, you may be under the assumption that this film, although billed as a romantic comedy, has more than a few depressing moments. I won't argue, but this merely illustrates how information can be shaded to a specific effect.

I could just as easily have started by commenting on the many extremely funny sequences, such as when Jake sneaks up to Jane's house  accompanied by a truly droll theme from composers Hans Zimmer and Heitor Pereira  and spies through a window on her first "date" with Adam; or when Jane and Adam, now on a real date, attend a party while stoned to the gills (definitely Martin's showcase scene); or when Jake attempts to surprise Jane in her bedroom, with very unexpected results.

Krasinski (well recognized from TV's The Office) turns scene-stealer as Harley, happily affianced to Lauren (Caitlin Fitzgerald), Jane and Jake's elder daughter. Harley accidentally learns of the affair, and his subsequent efforts to shield Lauren from this information, while dropping increasingly snarky remarks in Jane's direction, are a stitch.

And, in fairness, these well-played moments of hilarity may overshadow the darker touches, for viewers who prefer to embrace this film as a breezy lark.

Streep continues to be a marvel, bringing credibility  even in this frothy setting  to the wild mood swings demanded of her character. We'll be going with the fairly lightweight flow, when suddenly she stops us with a moment of amazing acting delicacy: a quick "what the hell" glance into her mirror, at one point, or the throat-gulping burst of fear and hesitation that precedes her decision to bare the "aging" body (to Jake, not to us) that has made her so self-conscious.

It is odd, however, to see Streep play another culinary master right on the heels of last summer's Julie and Julia.

As for Baldwin, well, TV's 30 Rock may be the best thing that ever happened to his career, because it revealed a set of comedy chops  and comic timing  that few would have imagined. Let's face it; Jake is a manipulative heel ... but he's also suavely attractive and utterly hilarious.

Martin does equally well with the story's toughest part, because Adam is a very quiet study. Martin's body language is impeccable, as always, and he makes Adam an unexpectedly fascinating character.

Zoe Kazan and Hunter Parrish hold their own as Jane and Jake's other two children, Gabby and Luke; alongside Fitzgerald, the three make a thoroughly credible brother and sisters trio.

Rita Wilson, Mary Kay Place, Alexandra Wentworth and Nora Dunn pop up as Jane's best friends, in a few "gal chat" scenes that seem little more than thin excuses to give these four actresses some screen time.

At close to two hours, Meyers' film feels about 20 minutes too long, mostly because the Jane/Jake dynamic begins to wear thin. She keeps pulling back, and he keeps breaking through her reluctance; the on again/off again nature of their affair becomes repetitive. Meyers would have done better to spend more time with Adam and the other supporting characters.

I suspect  at the risk of sounding condescending  that It's Complicated will delight folks who don't watch too many movies. Only critics and avid filmgoers are apt to be bothered by the uneven tone and other issues, and we'll undoubtedly be dismissed as nit-picky killjoys with no ability to simply let go and have a good time.

Fair enough. But it still feels "off" to me.

No comments:

Post a Comment