When Meryl Streep played Susan Orlean in Adaptation, it was a revelation of sorts — the serious acting legend loosening up for fully felt comedy. Seven years later, after Mamma Mia! and now, It’s Complicated, I’m starting to wonder if she can ever get the champagne back in the bottle. Streep can still play serious, of course: witness the severity of her nun in Doubt or, just as fearsome, her editrix in The Devil Wears Prada. But the once welcome sight of Streep having fun has been reduced to dithering, giggling, and general flibbergibittiness.
In other words, she fits all too well into a Nancy Meyers comedy. It’s Complicated is actually one of her most tolerable recent efforts; that is to say, unlike The Holiday or Something’s Gotta Give, no one on screen is called on to compliment Meyers’ own supposed wit. Of course, the women still drape themselves in white sweaters, hang copper pots in their kitchens, and hold down fantasy jobs with upper-upper-middle-class incomes, so this film’s progress might best be described as a baby step.
Streep’s version of the Meyers protagonist is Jane, a successful baker with three grown children and a cordial relationship with her ex-husband Jake (Alec Baldwin). When their son graduates from college, Jane and Jake find themselves rekindling the old spark; soon Jake is sneaking around on his former mistress Agness (Lake Bell), now his demanding, sour wife. Jane revels in the irony a bit, but soon she feels torn, not least when she spends time with Adam (Steve Martin), her recently divorced architect.
This scenario offers the usual Meyers shtick: faux-cathartic bonding of baby boomer ladies (Jane’s friends gather to support her and commiserate) and offhand disdain for the young (we’re supposed to take an instant dislike to Agness, less because she’s a humorless taskmaster than because she sports a tattoo — yuck!). Yet the film is unexpectedly bearable, due mainly to Baldwin. Jake re-woos his ex like a smooth but bearish lawyer barely able to contain his zeal, as if 30 Rock‘s Jack Donaghy moved to the suburbs and admitted his mortality. Baldwin has obviously filled out since his matinee-idol days, but he doesn’t hide from his girth — here he flaunts it, jokes about it, owns his 50something sprawl. As a result, he looks better onscreen than ever, no longer a dashing man, but a self-aware and charming one.
For that matter, Martin and even a giggly Streep come off looking good, too, owing to what seems their own warmth and intelligence. One might wonder why on earth these three talented performers would choose to work with Meyers, last seen squandering Kate Winslet, Jack Black, Jude Law, and Cameron Diaz in the same movie. But it makes a kind of sense: Meyers not only writes parts for women, a rarity itself, but often smart, successful middle-aged women, pursued by smart, successful middle-aged men. Hence the repetition of the white sweaters and copper pots and the love-interest architect, tics that might be forgivable in a more insightful screenplay.
If only Meyers had put together more than a premise and a bunch of conversations about her premise. It’s Complicated is shorter and snappier than her last few films, but it manages to flit around its central love triangle in such a way that no possible outcome seems particularly believable or satisfying. We see Jane and Jake in their passionate, halting affair, but Meyers lacks the imagination to hint at their incompatibilities; the characters just talk about conflict we never really witness or believe.
This leaves Jane looking one-dimensional, lacking any genuine attraction to Adam or tension with the ex, except as these feelings fit a formula. When Jane says that her relationship with Jake is complicated, we’re supposed to take her at her word. But in a Nancy Meyers world — glossy, soft-focused, and decidedly uncomplicated — even trusting Meryl Streep starts to feel dubious.