That’s going to come off as a snide swipe, which truly isn’t the case. Ever since her first screen credit as part of a writing team with her ex-husband Charles Shyer—a little surprise hit called Private Benjamin in 1980—Meyers has built one of the most impressive résumés of crowd-pleasing film comedies in the last three decades. As writer, director or sometimes both, Meyers has given us Baby Boom, the contemporary remakes of Father of the Bride and The Parent Trap, What Women Want and Something’s Gotta Give—the kind of films that turn up on cable in an almost non-stop rotation. She’s not edgy, she’s not groundbreaking and she’s not going to inspire a generation of new auteurs, but she’s figured out something that few of her contemporaries have—how to make a whole lot of people laugh a whole lot of the time.
It’s Complicated finds Meyers returning to her successful formula of adults trying to pretend they’re keeping it together while actually turning into basket cases. The occupant of the basket in this case is Jane Adler (Meryl Streep), who thought she finally had her life figured out 10 years after her divorce from Jake (Alec Baldwin). But the college graduation of her youngest son and the threat of an empty nest muddles Jane’s thinking to the point that she has a fling with a married man—and that married man happens to be Jake. The old fires seem to be rekindled, but Jane wonders whether the new/old relationship is a healthy one, especially when a nice guy like Adam (Steve Martin), the divorced architect working on her house, is also available.
The setup is vintage farce, and Meyers generally knows exactly how to pitch the payoff scenes that such a setup demands. The Office’s John Krasinski gets a great scene as Jane’s son-in-law-to-be, desperately trying to keep his fiancée (Caitlin Fitzgerald) from spotting her parents during a hotel rendezvous; Baldwin has fun sneaking around jealously while Jane entertains Adam. The big showpiece is vintage Meyers: Jane and Adam showing up at her son’s graduation party stoned, and enjoying themselves way too much.
Most of these scenes work, not because Meyers is a comedic cinema innovator but because she seems to have such a keen sense for working with actors. Martin, of course, worked with her previously on the Father of the Bride films, and here he shows the same combination of warmth and loose-limbed—but not over-the-top—physical comedy. Baldwin has certainly demonstrated his comedic chops over the last few years on 30 Rock, but Meyers gets a slightly different side from him. And Streep—who seriously seems to be growing more lovely with every passing year—takes the Diane Keaton role of endearing neurotic with the same kind of down-to-earth appeal, giving depth to someone who wants to believe that past heartbreak can somehow be made whole again. That’s part of the secret behind Meyers’ success: People like her movies largely because the characters in them, even the cads, are so likeable.
Critics, not surprisingly, have tended not to be quite as enthusiastic about Meyers’ films, and it’s easy to understand why. Her gags are not generally subtle ones—straight-laced folks getting high, or people getting caught naked at inappropriate or embarrassing moments—and she wears her sentimentalism on both sleeves, her collar and every other available item of clothing. She’s also far from the most efficient filmmaker out there, letting scenes drag on past the point where they’ve really served their dramatic purpose; at 118 minutes, It’s Complicated is actually Meyers’ shortest film as a director, and even that length is pushing it.
But is It’s Complicated satisfying, both as a comedy and a character piece about grownups not always sure how to act like grownups? Most definitely. Nobody’s going to teach Nancy Meyers movies in film schools, but studios are going to keep hearing the cash register ring when she makes them—and the reason why isn’t complicated.
Meryl Streep, Steve Martin, Alec Baldwin