It's Complicated (United States, 2009)

December 23, 2009
A movie review by James Berardinelli
It's Complicated Poster

For Nancy Meyers, whose Hollywood career began with screenplay and producer credits for Private Benjamin and whose first stint behind the director's chair occurred in 1998 with the Lindsay Lohan remake of The Parent Trap (back when Lohan was still a rising child star and not a tabloid sensation), It's Complicated illustrates how far she has come. Able to call her own shots and attract the best talent available in Hollywood, she has crafted a motion picture that does justice to both aspects of the "romantic comedy" genre. With a story that by turns defies and adheres to formulas, It's Complicated ends up being one of the end-year's best sources of pure entertainment. And for those who believe laughter is the best medicine, there's more than a bellyful or two to be found here.

The romantic comedy convention is to focus on a man and a woman who are destined for one another. During the course of the movie, they'll occasionally pull apart only to have fate push them back together. They are, after all, Cupid's pawns. Many films will introduce another male character whose purpose is to provide the dreaded "romantic obstruction." He may seem to characters trapped in the movie to be a reasonable alternative, but viewers know better - he's just a bump in the road. It's Complicated provides us with these staple characters. There's the woman: divorced cook Jane (Meryl Streep), who has finally cleared the last of three children out of the house and is getting ready to build a dream kitchen addition onto the main building. There's the man: Jane's ex-husband, Jake (Alec Baldwin), who is re-married yet finds himself yearning for the one true love of his life. There's the obstruction: architect Adam (Steve Martin), a nice guy who's supervising Jane's construction project. But wait… maybe it's the other way around. Maybe Adam is the man and Jake is the obstruction... It's all very complicated. And that's just the way Meyers wants it. Unlike with 90% of the romantic comedies out there, the goal is for the viewer to be unsure with whom Jane will cuddle as the end credits approach; Meyers wants us to see the good in both candidates. When Jane is with Jake, we want them to wander off into the sunset, arm-in-arm. When she's with Adam, it's difficult to imagine her being with anyone else. I can't recall the last time I didn't know the identity of the eventual partner long before the approach of the end credits.

For the most part, It's Complicated is smartly written. One could argue the people are a little too self-aware, but that quality doesn't bother me - these are movie characters, not my next-door neighbors. That's not to say there aren't problems. The three adult children are arguably too well-adjusted for kids who grew up in the shadow of the massive dysfunction of their parents' marriage. The scenes between Jane and her female friends (played by repeat offenders like Mary Kay Place and Rita Wilson) contain cringe-inducing dialogue. It's as if Meyers invited Nora Ephron (circa 2009, not back when she was writing clever stuff like When Harry Met Sally) on board to scribe these scenes. They are trite and damage the film's smooth flow. The best thing about them is that there are only two, and neither lasts inordinately long.

The importance of good acting emerges when one considers the three legs of the romantic triangle. The average romantic comedy features photogenic actors who are somewhere between puberty and the legal drinking age. Streep is 60, Martin is 64, and baby-faced Baldwin is 51. Typically, one does not populate a genre entry of this sort with such old geezers. But, as was the case in Something's Gotta Give, it works. The performances are unforced and the chemistry abundant; it doesn't matter that none of the stars have flawless skin and tight butts. For the most part, these actors don't upstage one another; they're giving. Even during Baldwin's big full moon scene, Martin and Streep are given reaction shots that get laughs.

For the most part, the members of the supporting cast do what they're supposed to do, which is to get out of Streep, Baldwin, and Martin's way. The exception is The Office's John Krasinski, who plays the soon-to-be-husband of Jane and Jake's eldest daughter. Krasinski is a master reactor, and he has some priceless moments. Meyers avoids overusing him. For the most part, Lake Bell is forgettable as Agnes, Jake's current wife, although her final appearance features an effective close-up that speaks volumes.

Perhaps no other working director can get as much humor out of the naked human body. Meyers provoked big laughs when Diane Keaton disrobed in Something's Gotta Give. Here, it's Alec Baldwin's turn. The scene is so hilarious that you won't hear a line of dialogue - the rest of the audience will be laughing too loudly. It's Complicated features something increasingly rare in romantic comedies: most of the jokes work. They're funny. And you won't feel embarrassed for having laughed at them because you won't be the only one in the theater doing so.

It's Complicated represents Meyers' most accomplished work to-date, and is a substantial upgrade over The Holiday. (To be fair, that movie imploded in part because of the grotesque miscasting of Jack Black as Kate Winslet's love interest.) Meyers unapologetically writes from a woman's point-of-view, and that quality makes her movies refreshing. She doesn't provide the same warmed-over clichés that dominate male-fashioned movies of this sort. It's Complicated isn't perfect and the ending may be a little low-key for some to appreciate, but it provides as engaging a two hour period as Meyers has ever been responsible for, and is a tonic for those weighed down by the seriousness of "important" would-be Oscar contenders.

It's Complicated (United States, 2009)

Director: Nancy Meyers
Cast: Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin, Steve Martin, John Krasinski, Lake Bell, Caitlin Fitzgerald, Hunter Parish, Zoe Kazan
Screenplay: Nancy Meyers
Cinematography: John Toll
Music: Hans Zimmer, Heitor Pereira
U.S. Distributor: Universal Pictures
Run Time: 1:58
U.S. Release Date: 2009-12-25
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Content, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1