Nancy Meyers, the director of December hits What Women Want, The Holiday and Something’s Gotta Give, has made a career of catering to her own demographic. Her films usually star middle-aged or older thespians wandering around posh houses and contemplating what to do with all their free time. This is not a slight. Some of the most successful directors found a niche and attacked it mercilessly for decades of well-received work. Scorsese has the seedy underbelly of criminal life. Meyers has suburbia. Again–this is not a slight.
Meyers’ films, including It’s Complicated, are wacky, laid-back comedies for those able to access her obviously alluring world. She knows exactly how to tap into the audience’s inner gossip, giving us juicy insider info on the love lives of the rich and…well, rich. It’s good-natured fun run astray by a complete lack of regard for those with real worries, not whimsical ones.
For instance, It’s Complicated tells the tale of Jake and Jane, a long divorced couple held together by their three kids. Jake (Alec Baldwin), remarried with a young stepson, is a partner at an unnamed law firm, but we know he’s got a bit of cash stashed away because of the Porsche he zips around in throughout the film. Jane (Meryl Streep) is also financially set, a fact outlined by her desire to expand her already expansive house, despite her being the sole occupant with no plans for any kind of familial augmentation. Jane’s architect, Adam, (Steve Martin) questions her at one point about having only one sink in her new bathroom. She tells him, holding back tears, that her current situation (two sinks), “makes her sad”.
Now if this aspect of our protagonist’s problem makes you yearn for the troubles of those with two sinks, I urge you to avoid It’s Complicated at all costs. These sorts of scenes pop up again and again. When Jake and Jane embark on their mildly scandalous affair, you may be more bothered by how easy it is for them to take time off work and pay for luxurious hotel suites than the act of adultery itself.
There’s no denying a certain aspect of ignorance is present in Meyers’ films, but she makes no apologies for it or even acknowledgment of it. Should Scorsese be expected to bring in a character completely clueless to the motivations and mentalities of a criminal? Of course not–it would divert the movie entirely. Therefore, Meyers shouldn’t have to introduce anyone who might have a different worldview than those confined to closed-gate communities. On that front, she proves herself focused and completely understanding of her characters. It’s an extremely entertaining film from start to about the end of act two.
The true problems persist in a much more basic place. Though the characters’ priorities are all true to form, their overarching motivations are never fully developed. The kids exist solely as props to depict family time until the film’s climax unfairly puts them front and center. John Krasinski, as Harley, the involved son-in-law, feels like he just stopped by the set, goofed off, and was offered a part. Don’t get me wrong–I’m glad he’s here. We just never get to know him. Jane, the film’s focus, also has structural cracks, but despite the earlier notation of Jane’s hypocritical housing plans, she is far from the least understood. Jake takes home that honor.
He cheats on his wife and feels no remorse. He expresses deep regret for failing Jane in the past, but never jumps fully on board with future plans. The man is a walking contradiction. In an obvious cry for the audience’s sympathy, one scene shows his wife being an absolutely cold, completely heartless nonhuman. OK, so that’s why he wants Jane back. Then we hear from a few of Jane’s friends that Jake can’t be alone and will stop at nothing to be taken care of by her. So does this prove Jake’s motives impure and mean he just needs a new caregiver when his latest drops the ball?
Jane doesn’t know. Jake doesn’t know. Meyers doesn’t know, and that means I don’t know. The film never fully embraces Jake as the hero or antihero, leaving its audience in limbo over who to root for in the end. While it’s nice for a while not to know who Jane will end up with, when you don’t know if she made the right choice by the end credits, there’s a problem. The ending itself feels tacked on and uneven, but that’s nothing new for a Meyers’ movie.
While she could teach a course on mise en scene and bringing the best out of actors, she has always struggled with creating a satisfying finale. What Women Want and Something’s Gotta Give are prime examples of Meyers’ desire to be conventionally satisfying until the final act. She delivers what everyone wants for the first hour and a half (her movies are also notoriously long), but yearns to defy convention for her final act. Unfortunately, she provides no set up for the unintentional let down. It doesn’t quite eradicate all the joy from the rest of the movie, but it definitely tries.
In It’s Complicated, the troubles tormenting the film don’t help ease the unsatisfactory conclusion. Meyers wants to lump all the complications under a label and move on with the fun. The film’s (ridiculous) title seems to be a direct message: “Ok, ok. There are a few character faults. Relationships are hard. Things get mixed up. It’s…complicated”. All of this may be true, but not for Meyers’ audience. Her viewers are used to being spoon-fed a heaping plate of fun for a whole film, not two-thirds. If Meyers’ can figure out how to finish as well as she starts, maybe her negative criticism won’t include those who want to slight her for her genre choice.