Monday, December 28, 2009

It's Complicated (Movie Review)

Ann asked me to go see It's Complicated with her yesterday.  We both walked into the theater knowing it would be a chick flick, but a chick flick par excellence since it sports Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin, John Krasinski, Steve Martin, and, in cameo doses, Mary Kay Place, Nora Dunn, and (usually a warning sign) Rita Wilson.

Let me say the obvious first:  Streep is incredible in this film, and because of her deftly complicated performance as a 58-year-old divorcee with three children, her own business, and a dried-up sex life, Complicated is the first modern chick flick to be worthy of an Oscar nomination.  It's not exactly The Piano or Annie Hall great, but, with Streep in it, it's way ahead of the pack of things like Sex and the City (dreck) and The Proposal (which is not dreck, but it lacks nuance or wit).

In fact, all the glowing praise heaped on Streep for Julie and Julia (in which rather meh movie she is, indeed, won-der-ful) needs to be relit and reheaped for her performance in this film.  In fact, I will be angry if she gets nominated for playing Julia Child instead of her achievement here.  It's just that much better, though both performances are noteworthy.

If you saw the trailer for this movie, you get the gist of it (divorcees reignite the old passion with a late midlife affair) and you can perhaps even guess the outcome, but what you may not expect is how involved you can get in it.  It's mostly Streep's doing, as I said, with her finely tuned double takes, infectious laughter, and her gift (it's called acting) of conveying loneliness or embarrassment with just a flicker of an eyelash.  But some credit goes too to writer-director Nancy Meyers (The Holiday and Something's Gotta Give), who has a good ear for the things people say that hurt each other (intentionally or not) and the things people do not say that give each other hope.

Alec Baldwin and John Krasinski are also major pluses in this film, though neither gets to (or does) exhibit the range of human feeling that Streep does.  They don't convey a lot about their characters beyond their emotions, which (you're ahead of me) Streep does.  In fact, the mark of what a magnificent actor Streep is (despite what that shrill, jittery, and sometimes brilliant Camille Paglia says to disparage her talent) that she conveys not just emotions, but who the person is behind the emotions (so that we can imagine the character's responses to events that are not even in the movie!) and, most incredible of all, she conveys insights to the characters around her, so that about 40% of what we feel towards Baldwin's and Krasinski's characters is (I would argue) due to Streep's reactions to what they say and do.

Streep is 80% responsible for what we come to feel for the rest of the cast.  Not that they are bad actors, but they just don't or can't work a moment the way God's gift to American cinema can.  Steve Martin's performance as a newly divorced architect is peculiarly drained (and draining), almost as if the gifted comedian/banjoist/art collector/playwright is under the impression that total lack of affect is the best way to convey a character's insecurity, withdrawal, expectation, and sorrow.  And in retrospect I'm pretty sure that I would have been more impressed with Martin's "restrained" performance, had it not been juxtaposed against Streep's, which conveys all the above, plus the whole living being of her character.

Okay, enough jisming all over Meryl Streep.

What are the film's drawbacks?  For me?  Apart from some niggling complaints I won't bother with, it has one main drawback; it's way too elegant.  Way too.  Yes, everybody in it is fabulously wealthy and reside in absolutely envy-inducing homes.  Sure, they are lawyers, restauranteurs, and architects.  But their environments are portrayed in golden Hollywood excess ... art-directed to death.  It is possible to portray the lifestyles of the well-to-do without idealizing them, as even a brief excerpt from The Graduate about midway through this movie illustrates by contrast.  The mise-en-scene of It's Complicated is calculated to induce desire and envy, the way television commercials do.  The food Streep serves in this movie made me even hungrier than the shots of food in Julie and Julia, which is, after all, partly about the delectability of a well-prepared meal.  Why couldn't the beautiful and wealthy characters in this film at least breathe something remotely like actual oxygen?

Kudos to the film (and its script) for transgressing some of the generic boundaries of the chick flick, for daring to violate the principle that all children should be adorable, for not depicting middle-aged sex and romance as inherently ridiculous, for at least hinting at what makes philandering husbands charming, and for addressing the feelings of guilt over casual sex with some attention to their ethical bases, and yet without didacticism or the pretense that sexual mores are absolute or just.

Chick flicks have an audience beyond those of the female persuasion, to be sure.  Some, like It's Complicated, are just good entertainment, regardless of their genre, and can be enjoyed even by those who aren't ordinarily devotees of the form.

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