Relationships are Hard and Things get Mixed Up -- It's Complicated

Battling bias can be hard, but It's Complicated lacks the basic quality material to make the proper case.

It’s Complicated

Director: Nancy Meyers
Cast: Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin, Steve Martin, John Krasinski
Length: 120 minutes
Studio: Universal Pictures, Relativity Media, Waverly Films, and Scott Rudin Productions
Year: 2009
Distributor: Universal Pictures
MPAA Rating: R
Release Date: 2010-04-27

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.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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