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Irreconcilable Differences

By Daniel Carlson | Film | December 28, 2009 |

By Daniel Carlson | Film | December 28, 2009 |

The most revealing moment in writer-director Nancy Meyers’ It’s Complicated is when Jane Adler (Meryl Streep) visits her shrink to plead for advice about the affair she’s caught up in. Though she’s been divorced for ten years, she’s recently taken up with her ex, who’s got a new young wife of his own, and the resulting fling has Jane feeling guilty. Turning to a mental health professional for judgment about whether her actions have been evil or not, she’s told: “It’s not good. It’s not bad.” That’s about all that can be said for Meyers’ film, which is the latest in a line of wish-fulfillment movies that place as much emphasis on set design as story, and seem almost adorably unaware of actual struggles and real-world emotions. It’s Complicated is certainly pleasant enough, full of happy actors and easy characters, and it’s even got a few small laughs, but it’s ultimately a listless, alienating film that’s devoid of tension or drive. Without risk, there can be no reward, but Meyers is ultimately too set on having her characters waltz through their low-level drama to experience real happiness. The title says it’s complicated, but it’s really anything but.

Jane owns a bakery in Santa Barbara, California, and still lives in the sprawling home where she and her ex-husband, Jake (Alec Baldwin), started their family years ago. She and Jake have been divorced for a decade when the film begins, and Jake’s moved on to marry the much younger Agness (Lake Bell). The opening scene is a party thrown by friends of Jane’s that’s meant to make us feel some sympathy for her, since Jake is there with Agness, but the emotions never quite connect because Meyers is too busy making sure we’re in awe of the ocean views and nice clothes. It’s not that the wealthy don’t have genuine problems; it’s that Meyers is too hung up on fetishizing their accomplishments to care. Things stay on this level of quasi-difficulty when the action moves to New York, where Jane and Jake travel with their grown children to see their middle son graduate college and wind up hooking up one night in their swanky hotel. Any potential for awkwardness or genuine comedy in their physical antics is undercut by the way they breeze out of checkout with just a signature, or the way Jane hands her son her credit card for a night on the town with nothing more than a “What can you do?” grin and shake of her head. It’s as if the night before never happened. On a technical level, things are happening, but it feels like a dream, free of consequence or reason.

By the time the story returns to California, Jane and Jake’s burgeoning affair is safely ensconced in a world of privilege and mild high jinks, none of which do anything to ground the characters or even make them feel relatable. Jane’s also working on an addition to her home, a plot device that’s pretty clearly a metaphor for her decision to take control of her life and finally move on from her ex, but her mansion on a large patch of land in Santa Barbara is hardly in need of a remodel. It’s happening just because it is, and because it allows her to meet Adam (Steve Martin), an architect dealing with his own divorce. Again, it’s not that the reconstruction-as-lifestyle-change metaphor is a totally bad one; off just the top of my head, the recent Brothers used it to pretty good effect. But the point is that Jane’s house doesn’t need changing. It’s actually pretty impressive, with immaculate touches culled directly from the pages of catalogs. A comedy that used that as a springboard to explore a character’s impulsive control needs that come at the expense of order and balance — that’d be interesting, and funny. But for Meyers, interesting and funny are the only things not on the shopping list.

The plot unfolds exactly as you think it would, with Jane toying with her affair with Jake while also growing closer to Adam. If you need any coaching on which is the right man for her, well, I can’t help you. There are some moments where Meyers shows admirable restraint — despite having the same last name and first initial, Jane and Jake are never mistaken for each other by the hotel booker, for instance — but there are just as many weird and implausible ones, as when Adam goes to Jane’s for dinner and Jake winds up spying through the kitchen window, clearly visible yet never seen, even when he topples over and shakes the bushes with a mighty thud. The romantic partners bounce back and forth on the right beats, and everything works toward a foregone conclusion for Jane, Jake, and Adam.

It feels weird to write “Jane, Jake, and Adam,” though, given the way the principal cast was seemingly hired to play nothing more than overly polite versions of their public personas and recent roles. Streep is a cinematic treasure, but here she’s mostly reduced to playing the flighty neurotic of Mamma Mia! instead of a woman with believable strength. Baldwin does a phoned-in version of Jack Donaghy without any of the bite, but his performance is still so one-note that the moments of attempted humanization feel like part of a giant scheme: You’re never sure if his tears are real or just a way to trick his ex into bed again. Martin is droll and affable, and so completely nice that his future is never in doubt. The most entertaining member of the cast is John Krasinski as the fiancé of Jane’s eldest daughter. Sure, he’s mostly just trotting out the dry manner and comedic asides he’s honed to perfection on “The Office,” but they’re the best thing the film has going for it.

The downfall, though, is the fact that Meyers never wants any of her characters to deal with anything resembling real heartbreak or hardship. It robs the film of any conflict, since there’s no one to really root for and you’re not that worried about anybody in the first place. I can’t stress enough that my problems with the film aren’t classist: There’s nothing at all wrong with making a movie about people who’ve been financially very lucky, so long as the movie is about more than distracting the viewer with the trappings of wealth. (Gangster stories like GoodFellas seem to do this best.) Meyers ran into the same problem when she wrote the 1991 version of Father of the Bride, also starring Martin, which asked viewers to feel sorry for a man who was able to give his daughter everything she ever wanted. It’s Complicated is disguised as a romantic comedy, but it’s really just a chance for Meyers to let viewers, many of them probably older and female, fantasize about having their own patch of land in Southern California and the affections of two thriving businessmen. It’s tough to sympathize with what you’re told to idolize, and Meyers would rather have us worship at the altar of Jane’s divine home than worry too much about the people in it. Is the film a successful piece of fantasy? Absolutely. Does that make it worth watching? Not at all. The people most likely to actually enjoy It’s Complicated will treat it the way Jane treats the addition to her house: indulgent and unnecessary, but desired all the same.

Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a TV blogger for the Houston Press. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.