I can’t seem to bring myself to hate It’s Complicated (Universal Studios)as much as I’m supposed to. This is the kind of film that critics tend to reflexively dismiss as sticky-sweet fluff or bourgeois wish-fulfillment. The latter accusation is tough to deny: Rather than kitchen-sink realism, It’s Complicated traffics in kitchen-sink fantasy. Much of the plot hinges on Meryl Streep’s character’s long-held dream of building herself a new kitchen, one that would replace the entirely perfect kitchen she has already. But just beneath this movie’s gleaming high-end surfaces beats the heart of a classic screwball comedy.
Streep’s character, Jane Adler, is a professional pastry chef and mother of three grown children who lives in a gorgeous house in the gorgeous coastal town of Santa Barbara, Calif. Ten years ago, her husband Jake (Alec Baldwin) left her for a much younger woman (Lake Bell). On a trip to New York for their youngest child’s college graduation, Jane and Jake bump into each other, both alone at the hotel bar. They awkwardly agree to have dinner together, have way too much to drink (we’re talking Bukowskian quantities—by my count, two cocktails apiece plus three shared bottles of wine) and wind up in her room having drunken, passionate, and extremely ill-advised sex. Jane wants to write it off as a one-time mistake, but after their return to California, she finds herself embroiled in a full-fledged affair with her immature, needy, but irresistibly charming ex. Meanwhile, Adam (Steve Martin), the buttoned-up architect charged with building Jane’s unnecessary new kitchen (seriously, could she at least be short on counter space? Something?), is quietly courting her as well, but his discreet gestures of affection keep getting eclipsed by Jake’s grand-scale buffoonery.
All this is thoroughly ridiculous, of course, but when Streep and Baldwin are on-screen, it’s delightfully so. As a couple with a long, checkered history and a shared gift for banter, they’re as believable as Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant in The Philadelphia Story, or William Powell and Myrna Loy in the Thin Man movies. Fine, the banter itself isn’t always up to George Cukor level, but it’s not dumb either, and these two actors, utterly relaxed and in the groove, make the modest laughs and insights seem like something more.
What Baldwin does with his character is especially smart. As written, Jake is a fairly standard movie ex-husband, a well-meaning but self-absorbed bumbler who can’t keep details about his children’s lives straight. But Baldwin invents unexpected bits of business that make you understand why Jane has such a hard time letting go of her ex. Jake is a drama queen who gets tears in his eyes at a moment’s notice and moans with pleasure when he eats good food. He makes gestures that are at once obscene and strangely romantic, like grabbing his ex-wife’s crotch after lovemaking and murmuring, “Home sweet home.” Everyone who’s managed to make it to their fifth decade has an ex like Jake, the person who makes you laugh like no one else but whom you just can’t manage to make a life with. The scenes late in the movie when Jane and Jake sort through the implications of their dalliance and debate the possibility of a future together are genuinely affecting, above and beyond the call of duty for a movie this lightweight.
There are a few moments of decently staged who’s-behind-that-door sex farce, like a scene when Jane’s daughter’s fiancé (John Krasinski, more than holding his own among these big comic talents) spots his future mother- and father-in-law furtively checking into a hotel for some afternoon delight. A scene in which Streep, Martin, Baldwin, and Krasinski all smoke pot at a house party is pure joy, nothing like the ageist “old folks get high” cliché that description might suggest. (For painful “old folks get high” moments on film this year, see Taking Woodstock and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.)
As a director, Nancy Meyers has a bad case of the cutes. She punches up scenes unnecessarily with perky music and lingers way too long over a montage in which Martin and Streep have fun baking chocolate croissants together. (Just one costume improvised out of croissant dough would have been plenty.) It’s Complicated seems at times to be obscured by a layer of caramelly goo that, if you could just scrape it away, would reveal a sharp story and characters underneath. This goo layer is the kind of thing that gives chick flicks a bad name. I reject the logic by which middle-aged female wish fulfillment at the movies deserves only our scorn while adolescent-boy wish fulfillment is worthy of adulation. But if Meyers had dialed back the schmaltz (and the envy-inducing shelter-mag production design) by about 20 percent, she could have made the romantic comedy of the year.