Screening Room #2: It's Complicated

I read a news story today about a Rutgers professor who’s being disciplined for racially-charged comments on Facebook. Apparently he was venting about the gentrification of his neighborhood by affluent, young white people, messing up the diversity vibe (I guess).

I’m already forgetting the details, as my eyes tend to glaze over with this sort of thing. I have really not much interest at all in academia, seeing a fair amount from my spousal perspective and then thinking, you know. There are more important things.

But sure, you can imagine students of the pale-skinned variety wondering if this professor might have a bias. He was pretty vocal about his opinion about white people.

He is a white person, by the way, one of the other reasons for the glazing. I’m sure this guy thought he had a free pass to be vocal about his own tribe, which makes a certain amount of sense. The university is being responsible, I suppose. Now I’m yawning here.

Just a prelude to talking about Nancy Meyers, a film writer and director whose name you might not recognize. Her movies you’ll know, at least the names and at least a few. Her writing career took off with Private Benjamin, followed by Irreconcilable Differences, Protocol, and Father of the Bride (with Steve Martin and Diane Keaton, both films). Her first writing-directing gig was The Parent Trap, followed by these titles.

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Meyers has a reputation, then, for two things—making very successful movies, and making very successful movies about rich white people who have rich white people problems. Crazy Rich Caucasians wouldn’t be a bad title for any of them.

Not that I have a problem here. Rich white people have stories, too. Make some movies for them, sure. We’ve got others.

I’ve seen a lot of her movies. I recognize the flaws, the homogeneity, the mundane plot points revolving mostly around sappy love stories propped up by very funny dialogue and some remarkable actors, who seem to love making her films. I have no issues at all with her movies, and in fact I’ve lately been thinking that The Holiday is one of my Christmas favorites, as ridiculous as it feels. Hey, Jack Black!

There are a couple of things about Meyers, though. One is that the two Father of the Bride films are very special to my daughter, for her own reasons. I am not unlike Steve Martin in her eyes, apparently, although maybe not the best parts.

And it’s only been in the past year or so that I’ve realized that two films I tend to rewatch were both made by this woman. I started thinking about her, then, wondering what the trick is. Neither would go on a list of best movies, although they were both very successful. They just seem to make me happy, and I keep coming back for that reason.

One is The Intern. It’s just a sweet film, with the best performance Robert DeNiro’s given in years. I love to watch this.

The other is It’s Complicated.

 Streep and Baldwin, reconnecting.

Streep and Baldwin, reconnecting.

I watched this yesterday, for probably the 10th time. Spoiler Alert: There will be spoilers.

It’s a weird film for me to latch onto. The characters are almost comically immune to most of life’s challenges, the ones the rest of us wallow around in. They have oodles of money, fancy houses, family and friends who are all attractive and (wait for it) equally wealthy. This might be a funny plot if that were the premise, but it’s not. It’s just a given.

Let me contrast this with another movie I ended up rewatching a couple of weeks ago, in increments over a few days, Company Men. It’s nothing to write home about, but the picture it paints of affluent Americans forced to confront their lifestyle during the Great Recession is at least interesting.

But naw, not in It’s Complicated. Meryl Streep plays a minor-league Martha Stewart, a restaurant owner who prides herself on those chocolate croissants, which she whips up for her date on a spontaneous midnight excursion to her bakery (forget the time compression required to make the croissants). She’s been divorced from Alec Baldwin for 10 years, after a marriage of nearly 20, when he had an affair with a younger woman and subsequently married her. “I’m a walking cliché,” Baldwin’s character admits, with three grown children and now a 5-year-old stepson.

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Meanwhile, the middle child is graduating from college, the oldest is about to get married, and the youngest is heading off for university. Meryl appears to have graduated toward gentle amusement at how her life has turned out, successful but single, with maybe a possible romance hinted with the introduction of an architect to design an addition to her gorgeous Santa Barbara home (Steve Martin. Hi Steve!).

But that’s before a trip to New York for the kid’s graduation, finding herself in a restaurant bar with her ex-husband. Drinks flow, dancing is danced, and our two older Americans end up in a hotel bed, Baldwin ecstatic and Streep horrified by what they’ve done.

And continue to do, at least a couple of times. Baldwin is charming, a little raffish, obviously still in love with his ex and troubled at home. Streep is looking for love, if in the wrong places, and waffles between shame and a little late-in-life excitement that feels naughty and still not…quite…wrong. Or maybe wrong.

It wouldn’t work without Meryl Streep, of course, grounding the whole thing in some sort of reality, if alien to most of us. And it wouldn’t work without Baldwin, or Martin for that matter. We have to care about these characters (and most of Meyers’ characters, actually) beyond the fictional facts, which aren’t worth caring about, so we need attractive, quality actors that already bring our affection to the table. This may be her secret, then.

It may be. Toward the end of his run on The Office, John Krasinski plays a recognizable version of his Jim Halpert character as the fiancé of the older daughter,  not-quite member of the family who understands early on (in a pretty funny scene) that something seriously messed up is going on with his future in-laws.

 Kazan, Streep, Martin, Caitlin Fitzgerald, and Hunter Parrish

Kazan, Streep, Martin, Caitlin Fitzgerald, and Hunter Parrish

And look! There’s Zoe Kazan, almost a decade before her star turn in The Big Sick, playing the college freshman of the family, and Hunter Parrish (from Weeds fame) as the new graduate. Rita Wilson and Mary Kay Place even have some screen time for Streep to bounce her later-life crisis off of.

And those croissants look great.

I don’t know. I just really like this movie, apparently. I can’t call it a guilty pleasure, since there’s really nothing wrong with it at all. It’s just a sort of romantic comedy, if on the elder side, and it makes me happy in a comfort-food way. It’s a mac-and-cheese movie.

Or maybe it’s just a Meryl Streep movie. That’ll work, but I don’t know and I don’t care. I like it, and it’s not complicated at all.

Chuck SigarsComment