Monday, January 11, 2010

Femonomics at the Movies: It’s Complicated

The Viewer’s Angle

Nancy Meyer’s new film, It’s Complicated, has fulfilled its promise to be a holiday crowdpleaser, having already garnered Golden Globe nominations and grossed over $75 million domestically.

Somewhat amusing and with an entirely pleasant story, It’s Complicated primarily seduces viewers with gorgeous sets depicting luxurious Southern California living and tableful after tableful of mouth-watering food spreads. The story follows divorcee and millionaire bakery owner Jane (Meryly Streep) as she hooks-up with her married ex-husband Jake (Alec Baldwin) and courts Adam (Steve Martin), the architect designing an addition to her already palatial home.

These actors are able to produce some limited chemistry and are believable in their roles (imagine that! a trio of millionaires from Orange County playing a trio of millionaires from Santa Barbara County – what a stretch!)

Those looking for one of Streep’s impressive dramatic performances will not find it here, however.
Meyer’s superficial script and (ironically) simplistic plot make for a fairly uninteresting movie. The main characters are never fully developed, instead the film relies on audiences’ prior relationship with these actors to create any emotional investment in the story. The supporting characters are mere caricatures, meanwhile, with Jane’s children and Jake’s wife Agness barely even believable.

For all of these reasons It’s Complicated is not a good movie, but nevertheless has a place as a fun escapist afternoon at the movies; audiences can expect to be fairly entertained, but not much more.

The Feminist Angle

It’s Complicated is in some ways more progressive than many of today’s films in it’s portrayal of women, in particular Streep’s character. That the story revolves around Jane, a middle-aged woman, is a rarity in itself. Jane also has an active sexual/romantic life, a thriving career, successful (if oddly clingy) grown children, and even hobbies – truly a woman who has it all.

Jane’s apparent empowerment, however, is undermined in two ways. Jane’s sex life (and to some degree her ex Jake’s as well) is portrayed as humorous in a ridiculous way. Middle-aged people having sex is the punchline to far too many jokes. More importantly, the subtext is that Jane does not have it all – she needs a partner! At no point is the idea broached that she could be perfectly happy as a single woman; being alone is made to seem like just settling.

The character of Agness, Jake’s new, younger wife, is also problematic. Young and fit, Agness is set up as Jane’s rival. In some sense this is a necessary plot device, given that Jane and Jake hook up, but it is still the old catfight trope. Agness character is never fully developed, but we learn that she is “crazy” (for leaving her husband and then returning), a bad mother, and really bitchy (acting all suspicious when her husband is actually cheating on her). At one point, the movie even acknowledges the double standard, as Jane and her friends joke about the situation. However, this is not taken further and the potential for some real narrative is left on the table.

The reception of It’s Complicated was also troublesome. This was billed as a woman’s movie, with a long NYTimes piece on Nancy Meyers and Nora Ephron discussing “women’s films.” The implication here is that all other movies are men’s films. As a woman who does not typically like romantic comedies, this seems inaccurate. Just because a protagonist is female does not mean that I will identify them. In fact, I most often choose to watch action movies, and have no trouble identifying with the leads, despite their gender (at least 80% male – where are the female action stars?) In sum, films for this woman have to be (a) well made, (b) well written, and either (c) exciting or (d) interesting / complex. Unfortunately, It’s Complicated just does not fit the bill.

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