Sunday, March 6, 2011

Not Very

It's always a disappointment to see well-respected actors try to fill out a vapid script as they push the edges out only to have their performance diluted by heavy-handed, uneven direction. One might not be sure where to lay the blame when unknowns are involved, but in the case of 2009's It's Complicated, it's certain that none of the leads can be held to fault, so the viewer's excoriation can only be turned to the director and screenwriter who, in this annoying effort, clearly deserves a cinematic bitch-slapping.

It's Complicated stars three veterans, Meryl Streep, Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin and is written and directed by Nancy Myers, who also wrote and directed The Holiday, Something's Gotta Give and who directed and wrote the screenplay of 1998's The Parent Trap starring the not-yet-voluptuous and still-sober Lindsay Lohan. Myer's rom-com cred can be traced back through Father of the Bride and Father of the Bride II, both ostensibly starring Steve Martin, all the way back to 1980's ubercute Private Benjamin, which she wrote. So, with her last few movies, she's wrested more complete control over the finished product and in the case of It's Complicated, that's not a good thing.

The movie opens with an establishing aerial shot of the gloriously beautiful California coast near exclusive and well-monied Santa Barbara and as the titles roll, land at an event celebrating the college graduation of one of the character's kids. Surprising is Steve Martin's second billing against Streep, though the viewer will shortly find that his character, that of architect Adam, is more minor in terms of spoken lines or appearances in scenes through the movie than third-billed Alec Baldwin, the putative lead of Jake Adler, successful attorney, versus Streep's pastry-happy Jane Adler. Focus is quickly drawn to Jake and Jane champagne-toasting their long-time friends on their assumed successful thirty years of marriage. The impression is that one married pair is celebrating another and they do make a likely couple, but the appearance of Agness, bitchily played by Lake Bell, and Jane's ha-ha double take of Agness' perfect abs as she waltzes toward the camera in slo-mo, very oddly dressed for the occasion, is the first of many WTF eye-rolls to come. Oh, we get it - Jake and Jane aren't together after all as it turns out that the much younger Agness is barrel-shaped Jake's trophy. Sigh.

Nevertheless, for reasons both boring and inane, Jake and Jane hook up, reigniting a flame that perhaps never quite went out. Why? Insert minor dramatic tension here - okay, moving on. That's right: without even seeing the movie, whatever the reader of this review cares to sketch out in his or her mind is what comes to pass, together with baby-boomer pot smoking, minor health scares of the aged and revelations thereto that are just, plain sad and scrumptiously flabby but fabulous tumbles in the sack.

Perhaps it could be said that Nancy Myers has a brand to offer and is a known quantity at the box office so that, when liberally mixed with indubitably A-list talent, a hit of sorts is in the offing, bankable and guaranteed to be undisturbing to casual, middle-aged holiday moviegoers. It doesn't seem that this demographic is tired of the well-worn hat she's served up, either. With an incredible $85 million budget, this movie, as it really shouldn't be called "film," grossed $112 million domestically by the time is closed in theatres after Easter 2010. Don't worry, though, since foreign ticket sales more than made up for the domestic close-call, topping the take at $219 million. Her prior flick, The Holiday, actually lost money on the home front, possibly disappointing the older set by featuring the not-yet-mid-life ensemble cast of Jude Law, Cameron Diaz, Kate Winslet and a surprising turn by Jack Black, grossing only a tad over $63 million against another hard-to-believe budget of $85 million, and again making up the difference worldwide. The guess should be that the top-line box-office Dysons she ropes in are the biggest "above the line" part of her non-CGI budgets and this helps make bank on an otherwise tired-and-true formula, hence, Hollywood, or rather, Tokyo, opens the checkbook. Domo arigato.

One of the problems with It's Complicated is that it's insulting. It assumes its audience is interested in the juvenile machinations of its ultra-rich and highly whiny lead characters who, at their ripe old age, haven't yet figured stuff out for themselves though they display great success in the professional and parenting aspects of their lives. It's a falsehood that grates especially because such people in real life have the resources to force a difference, they know it and know full well how to accomplish whatever the heck they want. Let's see - Baldwin's character Jake is a lawyer, apparently wealthy (what lawyer isn't, especially in California, right?), Streep's Jane is the hands-on owner of a tremendously-sized, super upscale Starbucks-style bake shop, doling out hundred of gallons of over-priced lattes per hour to an endless stream of Polo- and Prada-wearing white people, whose lives are already so sweet that she admonishes, in the scene that establishes her massive success as the Lady Barista of the hills or the valley or wherever they are, one of her many bakers  to take a tray of brioche back because there's "too much sugar." Break, please? Using details like this to instantly define a character is most definitely phoning it in on the part of the script. Finally, poor, poor Architect Adam relies on self-help tapes to re-centre his feelings of loss toward his ex-wife who might have, probably, possibly left him because she was a "ho." Or because he was 2% when her coffee called for cream. Whatever, wimp.

In the end, there's no real explanation why Martin's character is such a cuckolded milquetoast or why Baldwin is such a sorry, flabby character or even why Streep is so conflicted. So, Myers thoughtfully inserts a scene in which Streep explains to her three very grown, red-eye-rimmed kids, all huddled together on a bed in their literally palatial house, why she got her Mojo tuned with old, fat, Flomax-suckin' Dad. Who is actually a loser. Who we should pity. But he's you're Dad, so he must be absent from this conversation. And these grown children, who are apparently still getting over a fifteen year-old divorce, where both parents parted amicably with loads of cash left behind and Ivy League educations and Priuses for all, are so hurt and fearful that their parents might again come together that they come apart. It's disturbing to imagine that these could possibly be real people. Let's hope not. Instead, let's be irritated by the notion that the director and script would have us believe that it is so.

Which brings this film to the concept that's critical to the success of a movie - suspension of disbelief. The characters fail to bring us there. For instance, successful lawyers don't have oodles of time to rattle around hotel rooms and fertility clinics. They are billing hours, meeting with clients, running meetings and possibly even litigating, if they're senior partners which, in the absence of anything more concrete about Jake-as-lawyer, we must assume he is. Ultimately, he's dimensionless and unbelievable because of it. Again, Baldwin is only reading what weak lines he's got and cashing the check at the end of it. Adam is an architect, and must be at least somewhat successful at it because he's an old guy and is still doing it. It's a tough business, the building trades, and being an all-around pussy will kill your career there for sure. And Adam is such a complete wimp, even more so than Jake. Clearly, Jane is attracted to wimpy guys, right? Sorry, it's not enough. Why does she choose a weak man with whom once before she's had a catastrophic relationship demise? Loneliness? The need for closure? Boredom? Revenge? Is Jane really the archetypal rich divorcee, shunned by husband of late, very late in this case, for the favours of snap-bottom recent grad student? Unfortunately, it's all explained very  neatly between Jane's coffee klatches with her lady-buds and a session with her therapist, who, I might add, is the only believable character I could find in an eye-roll filled hour and fifty-eight minutes of purely saccharine meanderings.

I'm neither an enemy nor a friend of the proverbial chick-flick. If a movie is good, I'll enjoy it. I might enjoy it even if it's middling if there's some particular appeal on any level, something subjectively particular to my taste or if it manages to disperse the ennui of the moment. But nearly two hours of mildly slapstick, upper-middle-class post-midlife angst in the land of climate so perfect that the hills bloom green all year 'round left me squirming, with sore eyeballs and wishing that these elitist, wishy-washy characters would just "snap out of it," as Loretta says to Ronny in Moonstruck. It's not complicated at all, which is at the core of what makes this film so terrible. It's impossible to feel empathy for people with perfect lives that purposely run off the path and when they do, not much happens. There's no great loss, no change, no real tension and not much learned. It's Complicated? Not very.

No comments: