Monday, July 12, 2010

It's Complicated (2009)

I would say that this was one of the better romcoms of late, especially in terms of the dialogue which sounded natural and insightful, without being predictable. Time and time again, the characters voiced a thought that had me nodding in affirmation, a stark departure from most Hollywood comedies which trade on the characters' stupidity. So often movies that involve divorced couples recreate The War of the Roses. This pair displays more respect towards each other than revenge.

Meryl Streep was likable, if giggly, as Jane Adler, a pleasant, warm version of Martha Stewart. Jane's ex-husband Jake is, by now, a stock character for Alec Baldwin, half charm, half smarm.

The Adlers have spent their 10 years of divorce in a cold war, maintaining a polite, but formal distance. But they find themselves booked at the same hotel for their son's graduation, imbibe at the lobby bar, share memories, then a dance floor and wind up in bed.

Feeling foolish after the rendezvous, Jane does her best to avoid the amorous Jake, but he is persistent, constantly cornering her. Since the audience has been told that the Adler marriage ended when Jake (now 58) cheated on Jane with a woman in her thirties (his current wife Agnes), one wonders why she would allow herself to be reeled in. He seems to be using her now as much as he did back then, since -- at first -- he doesn't broach the subject of a reconciliation with Jane but seems content to cheat, stimulated by the subterfuge. Even if he is willing to dump the domineering Agnes and her demon spawn (Jake's obnoxious 6 year old stepson), why should Jane be willing to rescue him from the "my wife doesn't understand me" dilemma, when he has painted her as the intolerable wife in the past? Why indulge someone who is constantly questing for the other side's greener grass?

Finding herself "the other woman" for the first time, Jane is torn between doubt and desire and discusses her indecision with her perennial trio of friends. This notion of the social quartet, the group of four friends who constantly share all of their ups, downs, and adventures during coffee (or cosmoplitans) and conversations is a purely fictional construct. It exists only in movies and tv. After high school, no one hangs out regularly in friendly groups of four -- unless they're playing bridge. Still Jane confides in her de rigueur BFFs and is told to go for it.

More surprisingly, Jane's psychologist also tells her to proceed with the affair, deciding that it can't hurt anything. What?! Sleeping with an ex-husband who is now married to someone else, raising a 6 year old boy and actively trying to conceive another child, could potentially hurt many things, Jane, her children, and Jake's new family, not least of all. If Jane has been counseled by this quack for the last 8 years, it sounds like she has a strong claim for medical malpractice.

Spurred by this bad advice, Jane casts hesitation aside and rushes headlong into Jake's waiting tryst. It's only when he stands her up that she decides to end it. She then starts dating Steve Martin's, Adam, a fellow divorcee who is also her architect.

In the movie's most forced and contrived scenes, Adam and Jane decide to smoke pot before attending her son's graduation party. As they stumble around high and silly, hijinks are supposed to ensue, but actually don't. It's after the party, when the marijuana has them looking for munchies, that Jane and Adam share their most enjoyable moments, baking chocolate croissants in her closed bakery. It's a sensual exchange, but not in the 9 and a 1/2 weeks food frenzy sense. Rather the simple intimacy of the two people, flour and fingers rolling together, fumbling to find the oven rack, unveiling the finished pastries and finally consuming what they've created together is the perfect metaphor for a relationship's evolution.

Warming to this new romance, Jane confesses to Adam that she had been seeing someone, but promises that it's over.

The next day, Jake shows up at Jane's door, saying he's ended his marriage to Agnes and needs a place to stay. Although Jane surmises that Jake was probably kicked out and didn't leave Agnes on his own, her children are moved by his feigned loneliness and insist that Jake be allowed to spend the night at their house. Although Jane repeatedly rebuffs Jake, he refuses to take "no" for an answer, easily his most obnoxious character trait. However, what's even more aggravating is that, until now, Jane has never meant "no" when she's said it. She's always let Jake change her mind, so quickly that even he wonders why she feels the need to perfunctorily reject him at first, when they both know she doesn't mean it. He wonders if she thinks that he'll stop respecting her if she just says yes the first time. Given the fact that her resolve has repeatedly folded like a house of cards, Jake's arrogance is almost forgivable. Almost.

Things come to a head when Jake disrobes and slips naked behind Jane's computer, not realizing that she'd been using it to webcam with Adam. Adam gets the full Monty on his computer screen. Jane comes in and screens, the kids are alerted and soon everyone knows about Jake and Jane's short-lived affair. Even though Jane quickly tells the kids (all adults) that she has no plans to reunite with their father, they react hysterically and end up huddled in bed together, crying like orphans. With grown kids as psychotic as these, Jane's love life suddenly seems to be the least of her problems. She tells them that she has to do what's right for herself and, after telling Jake it's definitely over, tries to make amends with Adam.

While the movie had some major missteps, its saving grace were that -- aside from suporting players like Alice and Pedro -- no one was a caricature. Yes, Jake was a smooth talking jerk, but he was also a fount of weary wisdom. well aware of his own flaws and frequently willing to admit them in a manner that was sincere, rather than manipulative. Yes, he tried to pull a few fast ones, but Jane was intelligent enough to see through them. So no harm, no foul. When they both admit that although they may have wanted their fling to mean something, there was something artificial and forced about it, Jane notes that their efforts at reunion might have worked better if he hadn't been married. Jake answers that if he hadn't been married, there might not have been a fling at all. He knows better than anyone that it's his displeasure with his present life that made the one he left behind years ago seem more attractive. Yet, when he compliments Jane, his words seem earnest and not just an attempt to get her into bed. This is especially true when he points out his own physical shortcomings.

In one nice exchange, Jake wonders why Jane has taken to calling him "Big Guy." Is it because he's tall or is it because he's gotten fat? It sounds like a joke, but it's played for honesty, not a punch line. Jane softly reflects that she doesn't know why she started using that nickname, but she'll stop since it bothers him. These really feel like two people who have known each other for 30 years and have often hurt each other in that time . . . but don't do it deliberately.

Jane acknowledges that it wasn't Jake's infidelity alone that broke them up. She bore some responsibility too, but the affair made it easier to assign all the blame to him. But such revelations don't just come at the end of the movie, in time for its happy ending. Jane and Jake have been insightful throughout. Their consistent thoughtfulness made the film's quiet humor far sharper than the (marijuana fueled) gags. As Jane's new suitor, Adam wasn't Ralph Bellamy to Jake's Cary Grant. Adam was precise, without being nerdy. Jake was suave, without being perfect. All three managed to swerve around the expected stereotypes, steering clear of the Philadelphia Story/ High Society endings that have now become cliched.

Some of the movie's screwball moments felt contrived. Indeed, the segment where the Adler's son-in-law-to-be discovers their affair, but scrambles to hide it from their daughter, smacks of the type of antics last scene in California Suite. But coming from talented actors who play it low key, rather than comedians who hit you over the head, even wacky works.

In the end, you're left with pretty nice character pieces. Complicated? Maybe not, but frequently compelling.

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