Wonderful Streep at the Center of ‘It’s Complicated’
It’s a wonderful thing -- that a major Hollywood studio has allowed a 60-year-old actress like Meryl Streep to carry a rom-com like It’s Complicated for a change. (Diane Keaton appears to be the only other female star permitted in that privileged, miniscule circle.) Yet a few immediate questions stir the waters and send ripples through an effective suspension of disbelief for even the most rah-rah advocates of older women’s cinematic representation.
1) Where does even a remarkable, gifted rom-com domestic goddess like Streep, as divorced pastry-maker Jane, manage to find the time to cultivate the spectacular vegetable garden in It’s Complicated? The multitasking model of idealized motherhood runs her own patisserie, is planning a major home renovation and managing a trio of offspring, but that surreally lush plot, overflowing with humongous, ruby-red tomatoes is downright unbelievable -- it looks like the handiwork of a small army of gardeners.
2) And speaking of offspring, how did a quirkily handsome pair like Baldwin and Streep produce such an immaculate, toothily perfect and preppy offspring? Even John Krasinski, as Jane’s future-son-in-law, sticks out like a goofy sore thumb in such seamlessly good-looking company. As the eldest son in Weeds, Hunter Parrish has proven himself an adept comedian, but as Jane’s middle son, he completely disappears into the miasma of Barbie-and-Ken perfection.
3) What is up with Alec Baldwin’s funny, hairily compressed lil’ bod, part aging, shrinking leprechaun, part Where the Wild Things Are? As the divorced ex eager to jump in the sack with his first wife, Baldwin plays it for full comic effect.
Those are only a few of the irksome wrinkles complicating the well-heeled, fantasy-driven pleasures of It’s Complicated. And most of the fun hinges on its still-gorgeous and sparkling lead actress. As Jane, the giggly, optimistic baker managing to make the best of her longtime husband Jake’s second marriage to the much younger woman (Lake Bell), Streep has become America’s embodiment of older female sensuality. And the enjoyment for the viewer is firmly embedded in watching her as she carefully makes and then bites into a freshly baked chocolate croissant -- echoes of her Julia in Julie & Julia. There’s the ready smile for friends and strangers, and the way of nervously giggling, propping up a drooping eyebrow and fanning herself when she’s caught in an awkward moment. The way she smokes a joint and can’t stop eating chocolate cake -- shades of Streep in Adaptation -- and the way she throws herself into an impromptu meeting then kiss and finally a fling with her ex.
All of which sounds as if this viewer has fallen in love Streep’s Jane, much like Baldwin’s Jake and Steve Martin’s Adam -- and that’s the simplest part of It’s Complicated because the actress makes it all too easy to fall for her charms. Unfortunately director-writer Nancy Meyer’s script is far too flimsy to succeed without the compelling interest of watching Streep at work at its light-hearted, airy center -- though Baldwin does his best to work with what he has, thanks to a hilariously sultry stare or two, and you end up missing the smart, madcap dialogue Tina Fey puts in his mouth for 30 Rock. Streep’s chemistry with Baldwin and Martin also helps -- and Martin might be at his best yet here, underplaying his gun-shy and newly divorced architect.
Still -- despite the need for trimming the annoyingly empty filler dialogue that’s inserted into a few critical moments, a horribly maudlin and Musak-like score (Meyers might have done better to fill the soundtrack with boomer hits as she does winningly with “Good Vibrations” at one instance), and some distracting set design that has you staring at the factory-perfect-weathered cabinetry rather than the actors -- one has to applaud the very existence of It’s Complicated. In a year that seemed to be dominated by CGI-enhanced fantasy, apocalyptic nightmares and New Moon, where older women were almost nonexistent, apart from Streep’s Julia Child, Sandra Bullock’s dream mom in The Blind Side, and Mo’Nique’s nightmarish materfamilias of Precious, It’s Complicated looks directly, if too-lightly, at how complicated and intermeshed a woman’s emotional landscape and relationships can be.
It’s Complicated’s most telling moment arrives quietly -- unlike its funniest scene, when Jake drops his drawers for an unsuspecting audience: the reunited family sits down together to watch a DVD of The Graduate, and Dustin Hoffman’s hopeful yet terrified face pops onscreen -- ready to make the leap into adulthood and spirit away Katharine Ross’ bride. One can’t help think back to Streep’s breakout turn onscreen, paired with Hoffman as the conflicted divorcee Joanna in 1979’s Kramer vs. Kramer. It’s Complicated bravely harks back to that more serious, and arguably more important, movie about divorce and contemporary relationships, and though it's a purposefully fantasy-driven comedy rather a realistic drama, and it will ultimately fail to find its legs in film history alongside Kramer vs. Kramer, it’s an intriguing return to that conversation.