I keep trying with Nancy Meyers, and I'm not going to do it anymore; she's an awful writer and a terrible filmmaker, period, point blank, end of story, and if there's anything to be learned from her latest soggy mess of a motion picture, It's Complicated, it's that there no matter who she somehow manages to suck into her orbit, there is no actor who can emerge from a Meyers project unscathed. You'd be hard pressed to come up with three actors I'd more enjoy seeing in a film together than Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin, and Steve Martin, but they are unable to do what Jack Nicholson, Diane Keaton, Kate Winslet, Jack Black, Frances McDormand, Amanda Peet, Jude Law, Cameron Diaz, Mel Gibson, and Helen Hunt couldn't manage either: to make a Nancy Meyers "comedy" watchable. Her films are where good acting goes to die.
The storyline, which is (in all fairness) moderately clever, centers on Jane (Streep), your typical fabulously wealthy, supposedly independent Meyers protagonist. Ten years ago, her husband Jake (Baldwin) left her for the younger temptress Agness (Lake Bell), now his wife. Both find themselves drinking alone at the hotel bar in New York City, where they've gone for their son's graduation; the drinks flow, the dancing follows, and before she knows it, Jane is having an affair with her ex-husband. The timing couldn't be more inopportune; a faint flirtation has begun with Adam (Martin), the architect who's designing the addition for her house.
An early scene in their courtship pinpoints one of the major issues with not just It's Complicated, but with Meyers' entire oeuvre. To explain, allow me to pose this question to you, gentle reader: Remember how exciting it was the first time your architect came over and marked off your new addition? No? Exactly. The running problem with her films (and those of her contemporary Nora Ephron, and films that ape their style, like The Women) is that there's no relatability to them; they are the stories of over-privileged, dull, vapid white people in oceanfront homes with no real problems. Now is an especially bad time to ask us to give a damn about characters as conspicuously consumptive as these, and I know, I know, the Great Depression was also the golden age of screwball comedy, but you know what? Those films were fast and zippy and filled with sparkling dialogue, and there is absolutely none of that here. Meyers' characters are hermetically sealed upper-class twits, and if you got stuck talking to one of them at a party, you'd be eyeing the snack table inside of 90 seconds. There's no spark to her dialogue, no zazz; it's all pleasantries and housekeeping, relentlessly vanilla. This is not the way people talk; it's the way people on bad television talk. "You've outgrown him, you've blossomed; you've feng shui-ed your whole life!" goes one line. "Karma is the ultimate bitch in this one!" goes another. And so on. It's not compelling, and it's not entertaining.
And it's not funny. Good Lord, is it not funny. There's not an honest-to-goodness laugh from one end of this movie to the other. Witness poor John Krasinski, so good on The Office, playing the future son-in-law who is clearly supposed to be the family cut-up, but saddled with painfully unamusing lines and no clue how to play them. Note the tired, desperately unhip descent into turgid pot humor. But for a real course in how to screw up comedy, watch the climactic bit with the webcam, which has potential, and is set up just fine, but the execution is disastrous--it's clumsy, overdone, overshot, overwhelmed by the obnoxiously whimsical score. The only thing worse than an unfunny scene is an unfunny scene accompanied by "funny" music. Watching that scene fall apart, all you can wonder is why they keep letting Nancy Myers direct movies, and nine years after What Women Want, I still don't have an answer for you.
Indeed, it takes a special kind of bad filmmaker to get a bad performance out of Meryl Streep, but Myers does it. Streep's work here is overcooked; it's all eye-rolling and fake laughing, trying too hard to overcompensate for the mirthless writing. Her and Alec Baldwin have some chemistry, in spite of the script; they even have one entire good scene, a laid-back, honest chat in her bathroom that provokes some genuine chuckles. But he's saddled with an irritatingly one-note character and no real through-line. Martin has some amusing moments and conveys real charm, but he tends to push too hard as well, desperate to wring some laughs out of the tired material.
It's Complicated is exactly the movie you think it's going to be. It is delivered as advertised, two hours of forced affability and wine-soaked "girl talk" and music montages and unrestrained self-indulgence on the part of its abysmal writer/director. I can't imagine how anyone would willfully sit through it. I predict it will be a huge holiday hit.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.