It's Complicated

Starring: Meryl Streep, Steve Martin, Alec Baldwin, and Lake Bell. Directed by Nancy Meyers.
Rated M (Drug use and sexual references). 120 min.

This is a romantic comedy about love, divorce and attachments of various kinds.  It stars Meryl Streep as Jane, a divorced mother of three, who finds that she is  becoming romantically involved again with her ex-husband, Jake (Alec Baldwin), who is intent on pursuing her after an unexpectedly enjoyable dinner together. Ten years before, Jake betrayed his relationship to Jane, and left her to marry a young woman, Agness (Lake Bell). Now, another man, Adam (Steve Martin), who is the architect of Jane’s planned new home, becomes attracted to Jane, and she finds herself caught between two emotional relationships, with both Jake and Adam competing for her affection. This film is a little unworthy of Streep’s talents, especially coming after her brilliant performance as Julia Childs in “Julie and Julia”. However, it does show how good Streep is with dramatic comedy and she plays her role with flair and remarkable expressiveness. Love is many things to many people, and this movie shows a couple who have spent years together, and who now want to find again what has been missing in their lives. Jane is conflicted about who to give up, or who finally to encourage, and Adam finds himself caught in a threesome that is increasingly uncomfortable.

The three main protagonists in this film work well with each other and there is a lot of dramatic, comic interplay among them. Nancy Meyers, who is the writer and director for the movie, extracts human feelings from her actors that resonate with the complexity of life, and people’s frustrating attempts to handle different human attachments. Jane starts to rethink her feelings when she sees how attractive she is to her ex-husband, who left her and her children to marry someone much younger than she is. Adam, who is also a divorcee, finds himself being attracted to a mature and independent woman, who is caught in the middle of re-discovering herself. And the movie seems to be saying superficially that having an “affair” is especially trendy and alright, if it is with your “Ex”.
The Director of this film Nancy Meyers skips over some serious elements in the shifting pattern of relationships between Jane, Jake, and Adam. The divorce between Jane and Jake happened because Jake was unfaithful to Jane, yet Jane seems content to disregard Jake’s promises of fidelity to Agness. Jake violates those promises, when he tries in adolescent fashion to lay aside the responsibilities of his marriage to Agness to resurrect his feelings for Jane. Love and attachment redefine themselves in the movie frequently, and the characters in the film often ruminate about what true attachment really means. There is comic potential in all of this, but it comes at a cost to the moral principles that lie beneath lasting commitment and genuine love. 

There are feature roles in the movie that are genuinely funny. Jane’s friends and her children work well together and Steve Martin delivers his lines in a low-key, serious way that is characteristically effective. But the dramatic weight of the movie is carried for the most part by Streep’s insightful portrayal of fluctuating guilt, conflict and attachment.

This is an entertaining movie that explores intelligently, and in comic fashion, the ups and downs of human relationships. The unfortunate tag-line of the film is that divorce has lots of benefits, but its messages are far more complicated than this. The film is really about two people with a conflicted past, who are thrown together again unexpectedly, and who try unsuccessfully to recover what might have been. Streep plays the complexities of that tricky situation with considerable warmth and style, despite the fact that Baldwin is not entirely up to the challenges of his role.

Universal Pictures. Out January 7, 2010

Peter W. Sheehan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.

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