Film on Fridays: OMG it’s like so0o0o complicatedDecember 25, 2009
This holiday premiere season, there’s one question probably not on your mind: is It’s Complicated significantly less stupid than its title, trailer, posters and tagline (“Divorced… with benefits”)? The answer, I barely care to inform you, is yes, thanks to careful direction and a cast more full of ringers than a United States Olympic basketball team. Writer-director Nancy Meyers, also of Something’s Gotta Give, acquits herself admirably in her apparent specialty of deconstructing ’70s movie stars by way of old-people romance. But it’s doubtful that she would have succeeded without the fine work of Alec Baldwin, Meryl Streep and Steve Martin, who play out a romance not only more convincing, not only funnier, but actually sexier than the young couples we’re supposed to enjoy watching generally manage. Unfortunately, Meyers never pushes the story far enough to make the strong statement about post-modern love that she clearly wanted to make.
It shouldn’t be a spoiler that It’s Complicated has a happy ending, which in Hollywood means that the characters arrange themselves algorithmically into a neat grid of mutual obligation that takes into account strict monogamy, absolute no-homo for anyone in a leading role, loyalty to biological offspring, and devotion to True Love. In other words, by the end Meyers takes care to banish everything that the phrase “it’s complicated” implies. And the beginning involves no romance or comedy to speak of, establishing character and setting at the sluggish pace of a writer without faith in the audience or in her own abilities. But the middle zips, it crackles, it sizzles, it follows all the clichés about stories that don’t follow clichés. The middle section is so exciting, the MPAA gave it an R rating, for a couple of tame sex-having and pot-smoking scenes with no swearing and no violence. It’s obvious what disturbed the MPAA: this movie makes love and sex (and drugs) seem fun. Also dirty, illicit, confusing. Complicated, even. Hell, people enjoy food in this movie more than they enjoy love in most “romantic comedies,” which gives it real comic and romantic stakes.
Most of the credit belongs to Alec Baldwin and Meryl Streep. It’s Complicated is really a romantic comedy between the two of them, with Steve Martin getting far less screen time than he deserves. Baldwin and Streep play a long-divorced couple who hook up without telling their kids or Baldwin’s new young wife. They play out a naughty but surprisingly tender affair, expertly portraying a couple unsure of how they feel or what they want from each other. Baldwin plays a slightly warmer variation of his character from 30Rock, at once too smug and too needy for his own good. He has an inimitable way of playing characters who always act like they know what they’re doing despite being at the mercy of emotions they don’t understand. Streep, though she arguably doesn’t need to star in any more movies named after Facebook statuses, proves herself once again a master of comedy. At several points in this movie she summons a laugh by an infinitesimal movement of one or two cheek muscles. She seems to only pronounce her lines out loud as a courtesy to the other actors. Maybe it doesn’t matter that she’s not doing Shakespeare, since this woman could make Shakespeare out of garbage. Seriously, though, I don’t know what Meryl Streep’s doing in this movie.
I do know exactly what Steve Martin’s doing in this movie: penance. After a decade of mostly depressing career choices, Steve Martin’s landed his first half-decent role in years: a nebbishy architect who competes for Streep’s affections. He appears too late in the movie, and fights too halfheartedly for Streep, to make his role really worthy of his talent, but that’s mostly the script’s fault. He does creak at the joints, fidgeting as if he not only hadn’t starred in, but hadn’t seen a decent comedy in years. But every so often he seems to discover where he is and why he’s there, and deliver a line with the timing and flair that used to seem effortless for him. For the first time since Shopgirl, Steve Martin has a clear chance at a comeback, and a clear chance to blow it.
The real scene-stealer in this movie is Jon Krasinski, whose non-The Office career is one of the most interesting mixes of mainstream ambition and indie pretension in Hollywood today. His character, the boyfriend of one of Baldwin and Streep’s three daughters, has no real reason to be anywhere in this movie, but he shows up everywhere. He seems to have no problem with playing support, while exuding enough charm for a leading man. He livens up the otherwise flat performances of the kids (including Weeds‘s Hunter Parrish), serves as a straight man to the old-timers (whose performances are much less self-aware) and brings the action to a halt whenever he senses that the audience needs a break. Not only does Krasinski demonstrate his skill, honed by years on The Office, at ensemble playing, he also makes the best case yet that he should be a star.
It’s refreshing to see a rom-com that’s not a successful nullity but a failed classic. But It’s Complicated fails all too clearly: at pacing, at balance among the cast, at making a statement, and sometimes just at humor. Still, anyone who’s ever seen a good romantic comedy should welcome a challenge to the stilted and pseudo-pornographic state of the industry. For a movie I expected not to like at all, It’s Complicated is a wonder.