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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

It’s Complicated (review)

The Porn of Unattainable Aspirations

And now, for the woman who already has absolutely everything, some more.

Christ, but I hate Nancy Meyers’ movies. Nancy Meyers, whose every movie looks like Pottery Barn orgasming. When magazines are like this — most especially “women’s” magazines — they get called “aspirational,” in that they are explicitly aimed at people who cannot possibly afford the lifestyle or the fake “reality” they depict but like to imagine themselves living like that anyway. They are selling extreme fantasies in the full knowledge that are fully unrealistic and unattainable and yet — completely unlike actual fantasy movies, everything from the likes of Indiana Jones to Batman to The Lord of the Rings — hold out tantalyzing hopes, however remote, that they are within reach for the viewer. And then they also smack you for harboring such hopes.
Nancy Meyers makes the kind of movies that, when my mom goes to see them, she can’t remember a thing about the plot or the characters afterward, but she will remember that Meryl Streep’s kitchen was amazing.

Meryl Streep in, in fact, the only thing about It’s Complicated that is in the least bit endurable for anyone who would rather see a story than a kitchen, and Streep just about makes it worthwhile a looksee for her smart, sassy, sexy depiction of an “older” woman who is effortlessly smart, sassy, and sexy herself. And in such a way that makes you dare to believe that she is real, and not a fantasy. Unfortunately, everything else going on around her leads you to believe that Meyers herself doesn’t believe Streep’s character is real, but only the product of an imagination that has bought into the notion that no female over the age of 25 could possibly be desirable.

For there is a desperation, an overwroughtness to how Meyers tells us this tale of Streep’s (Fantastic Mr. Fox, Julie & Julia) Jane, a successful bakery owner in wildly upscale Southern California, and how she falls into having an affair with her ex-husband, Jake (Alec Baldwin [My Sister’s Keeper, Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa], who is almost charming enough on his own to make this worth a look), while at the same time also being romanced by Adam (Steve Martin [Baby Mama, The Pink Panther], also very appealing), the architect she has hired to redo her kitchen. Can you imagine? A 60-year-old women with two men who find her attractive? Such never happens in real life, but you can enjoy the wonderful dream of such nonsense at The Movies!

Perhaps the most distasteful thing about Meyers’ films, which include the recent Something’s Gotta Give and The Holiday, is that we’re simultaneously meant to rejoice and be thankful that Meyers is condescending to give in to the outrageous reveries of women who have nothing but fantasy left — or so we’re meant to accept is the case — while she also underlines how ridiculously impossible those fantasies are. It’s like with that amazing kitchen. That’s the “before” kitchen, the one not good enough for Jane, the one she needs to clear away to make room for the “real” kitchen she has always desired. That’s how awesomely awesome Jane is, and how pathetic you the viewer are: the kitchen you’re swooning over is the one she can’t wait to get rid of.

So it almost doesn’t matter whether Meryl ends up with Steve, or Alec, or no one. Because the point isn’t what Meryl gets: it’s what you the viewer don’t get, you the poor sap of an undesirable woman with nothing to live for but fantasy. You’re not gonna get either Steve or Alex. Or that kitchen.


MPAA: rated R for some drug content and sexuality

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine
  • kathleen

    I used to work at home depot . I will make that kitchen I vow I WILL HAVE IT… or maybe not. At least Meryl is getting work

  • Hank Graham

    They are selling extreme fantasies in the full knowledge that are fully unrealistic and unattainable and yet — completely unlike actual fantasy movies, everything from the likes of Indiana Jones to Batman to The Lord of the Rings — hold out tantalyzing hopes, however remote, that they are within reach for the viewer. And then they also smack you for harboring such hopes.

    Sort of like golf?

  • Lisa

    I love me some kitchen porn!

  • Anne-Kari

    Goddamn it. I didn’t exactly have high hopes for this one but I had my fingers crossed that it would be worth it just to see Streep and Baldwin.

    Apparently not. Goddamn it. Frakking Nancy Meyers.

  • RyanMcN

    Oh my god, she’s the female equivalent of Michael Bay – Completely unrealistic and so mindlessly stereotypical you want to tear your hair out!

    Then again, if the two of them ever worked together, you actually could have that Pottery Barn explosion you imagined in your review… =)

  • Jack Cerf

    Meyers’ women are not in any sense middle class. They are rich, in the same way that the characters in 1930s comedies were rich. Nobody complains that the events of Bringing Up Baby, or The Philadelphia Story, or My Man Godfrey take place in luxurious surroundings. (Although E.B. White once did a quietly snarky piece on what the supposedly simple life Bette Davis was living at the end of Dark Victory would have actually cost.) These were unabashed fantasies of life among the well to do that the audience knew it would never enjoy. The rich, as Fitzgerald said, are different than you and me.

    But they’re not different enough for Meyers’ critics. The most self-conscious class line in the US today is the one between the upper middle class (what one of my partners calls the “six figure people”) and the really, really rich, with whom the professional upper middle class are in regular contact, whose tastes they share, whom they would like to emulate, and whom they resent for driving up the price of everything from good tables in Manhattan restaurants to houses in the Hamptons. The critics who attack Meyers’ “aspirational” settings are from that milieu.

    They want a female lead they can identify with, i.e. one of their own age and class. Meyers’ scripts give them someone they’d like to identify with, but her set decoration places this woman of a certain age in unabashedly upper class surroundings. They can’t enjoy the fantasy because it reminds them of what they would like to have themselves but can’t quite afford. Unlike the Depression era folks watching the impossibly remote doings of celluloid zillionaires, what they see in a Meyers movie is tantalizingly, and annoyingly, just out of reach in their lives outside the theater.

  • Paul

    Sounds like my mom would love this movie. After my brother and I graduated from college, their next goal was my mom’s dream house. They bought it in time to retire in it. Plus, happily married or not, she wouldn’t mind watching a film in which someone remotely her age was the heroine.

    This, of course, says nothing about the plot or characterization, but your review was pretty skimpy on that as well. I would think that these three could at least act.

  • funWithHeadlines

    Odd review, in my opinion. You like Streep, find Baldwin charming and find Martin appealing. But because you dislike the kitchen porn, it’s a Skip It. As Jack Cerf says, Myers makes movies about very upper middle class folks having very upper middle class issues. It may not reflect our lives, but most movie characters don’t.

    So I guess if you want to see a movie that makes you like Streep, find Baldwin charming and find Martin appealing, and don’t mind 1930s millionaire comedies, you’ll like It’s Complicated.

  • Cindy

    I find it somewhat condensending that no women over 60 could have two men interested in her. Huh?? My 73 year old widowed mother has 2 men interested in her and one is 9 years younger! This reviewer needs to get real, because older people are leading interesting lives and some have kitchens that look that good! Meryl Streep is just the finest actress of our time bar none, no matter the age!

  • Shane

    Not so great with the irony-spotting are ya, Cindy?

  • MaryAnn

    I find it somewhat condensending that no women over 60 could have two men interested in her.

    Then you should avoid this movie, Cindy.

    Odd review, in my opinion. You like Streep, find Baldwin charming and find Martin appealing. But because you dislike the kitchen porn, it’s a Skip It.

    No, it’s not just the kitchen porn that turns me off. It’s the whole attitude with which the package is presented. As Cindy fails to note, it’s not me that thinks it’s bizarre that a 60-year-old woman might have two men interested in her, it’s the film that appears to have that attitude. It’s not *just* the lifestyle that is fantastical here, it’s the entire approach to everything that happens in this story.

    Look, good performances by appealing actors alone do not a satisfying cinematic experience make for me. It’s like a restaurant where the food is terrible but the service is great. Who would eat at such a place? The opposite is far more preferrable: a restaurant where the food is amazing but the service indifferent. Story is primary to me when it comes to movies: If the story (which includes the attitudes with which it is told) doesn’t taste good to me, it doesn’t matter how amazing the performances are or how beautiful the interiors are or how wonderful the cinematography is. It’s still shit, no matter how well it’s being served to me.

  • Knightgee

    @ Jack Cerf: I like how you didn’t address any aspect of the review and basically just tried to dismiss it as the rantings of a bitter upper-middle class woman angry that she can’t be Meryl Streep. Yeah, I’m sure it’s just jealousy and has nothing to do with the movie working from the pre-conceived notion that the entire premise of the film is implausible because no man could find a woman over 60 attractive, much less two men. Yes, clearly MaryAnn is just mad that she isn’t rich like Streep’s character, and it has nothing to do with the fact that the movie’s stance is inherently offensive and insulting to the very same audience it’s seeking.

  • Pedro

    1. What’s the name of that Mary Sue who writes Twilight?

    2. What’s the name of this movie’s director?

  • Drave

    The main thing I took away from this film is that Meryl Streep is aging a hell of a lot more gracefully than Alec Baldwin.

  • wooster182

    I don’t understand what makes the movie an unattainable fantasy? What specifically about the movie tells the women that watch it that they will never be as good?

    I haven’t seen the movie yet, but if it’s anything like Something’s Gotta Give, that film didn’t make me feel that way at all. It left me, at 18, hoping that I’d be as graceful a woman as Diane Keaton when I’m her age. I felt hopeful not resentful.

  • luddite

    “Story is primary to me when it comes to movies: If the story (which includes the attitudes with which it is told) doesn’t taste good to me, it doesn’t matter how amazing the performances are or how beautiful the interiors are or how wonderful the cinematography is. It’s still shit, no matter how well it’s being served to me.”

    But what about Avatar then?

  • MaryAnn

    I don’t understand what makes the movie an unattainable fantasy? What specifically about the movie tells the women that watch it that they will never be as good?

    It’s the overall tone. For one, if everything else in the Streep character’s life of out of reach for most women (like her wealthy lifestyle), then why shouldn’t the romantic aspect be, too? And all the women here — the Streep character and her friends — act like there’s something astonishing in what she’s going through, and not just because she’s having an affair with her ex.

    I haven’t seen the movie yet, but if it’s anything like Something’s Gotta Give, that film didn’t make me feel that way at all.

    If you liked *Something’s Gotta Give,* then you’ll probably like this one.

    But what about Avatar then?

    A familiar story isn’t necessarily a bad one. Would I have preferred that Cameron be as adventurous with his story as he was with his FX? Sure. But, as I noted in my *Avatar* review, *Dances with Wolves* is a great story, even when it’s transported to Pandora.

  • Wooster182

    Thanks, MaryAnne. I understand your point about the tone specifically if the women are all astonished by Streep’s ability to snag the men.

    However, if they are all astonished and she’s wealthy and successful unlike we’ll ever apparently be, then how is her romance an insult to just the women who watch? Wouldn’t the movie be saying that all women have difficulty in finding men? That all women are astonished when they find attractive, respectable men? And quite honestly, in a world where a man is twice as likely to have a spouse or girlfriend than a woman is to have a significant other (because society makes it easier for men to date), isn’t the point possibly well made?

    On a separate note, I think it’s a stretch of twisted logic that female viewers are going to jump from the assumption that if they can’t have her kitchen then they most certainly can’t have her men. That’s not where my mind would jump. And since women are becoming more and more independent, marrying at more mature ages if getting married at all, they might be more upset about not being able to obtain the car or kitchen than the man. And in the US where films are seen more as propaganda for the “American Dream,” I would assume several women would leave the theater with a sense of promise that maybe someday they can earn their way to afford those luxuries, with or without the men. Statistically speaking, it probably won’t happen, but American students are failing math and don’t pay much attention to statistics anyway. ;)

  • Blank Frank

    I have no real interest in seeing this movie, but…didn’t this get bumped from PG13 to R because of an “instance of marijuana usage with no negative effects”? God save the MPAA!

    @Pedro: That’s Stephanie Meyer. After Nancy and Stephanie and Urban, I’m about ready to wash my hands of Meyers altogether.

  • Susan

    The pot scenes were great. THAT I can certainly obtain. It’s been about 27 years for me, too. Maybe it’s time again?

  • Paul

    Speaking of math, how can a man be twice as likely as a woman to have a significant other? Even if half the men had all the women, then the other half of the men would have zero and it still averages out, right? Unless you live in one of those places all the men left to go to Alaska (where the men outnumber the women 10 to 1, inspiring a woman I knew who grew up there to say that “the odds are good, but the goods are odd”)

  • Susan

    if the women are all astonished by Streep’s ability to snag the men

    I didn’t take that meaning at all. In fact, her friends specifically tell her both that there’s no reason she shouldn’t be able to find a partner and that she’s way too good for her ex. They’re “astonished” that she’s acting so uncharactetistically.

  • @Pedro: That’s Stephanie Meyer. After Nancy and Stephanie and Urban, I’m about ready to wash my hands of Meyers altogether.

    What? No love for Nicholas Meyer, author of The Seven Percent Solution and director of Time After Time and The Wrath of Khan? I realize those two movies may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but when you consider all the films released within MaryAnn’s lifetime, you really could do much, much worse than to watch those two.

    Speaking of math, how can a man be twice as likely as a woman to have a significant other?

    I was wondering about that myself.

  • johnr

    I’m with ya on about 85% of the reviews, but not this one.

    Look, I understand. In my younger days, anything that remotely reminded me of Cosmopolitan would set me off. Cosmo stood for all things that I found bad for women, and bad for gender relations, and just bad in general, and thus if I saw a film that seemed to me to be Cosmo-inspired I got all upsetty.

    So I do understand.

    But … this movie doesn’t remotely suggest that viewers should be surprised that Meryl Streep’s character is attractive to men. It’s very clear that she was hurt by her divorce and retreated. As opposed to being rejected by the male species.

    As for the fact that she and everybody else in the film is rich … nah, I don’t believe you really think that’s an issue worth discussing.

    Hey, you still hit ’em more than you miss ’em, and the reviews are always entertaining. So, thanks.

  • Pedro

    My aunt is in her early 60’s, and my cousin is in her 50’s. They both saw, and loved, this movie.

    Comment from my aunt: “it makes you laugh out loud from start to finish!”

    When I mentioned this review – and another one I read over at Cinemablend, my other source for movie reviews – and the thing MaryAnn says about how the kitchen is more memorable than the movie, my aunt vehemently disagreed.

    So I guess, again, this is a question of certain movie critics being in the wrong demographic for a movie…

  • johnr

    “So I guess, again, this is a question of certain movie critics being in the wrong demographic for a movie…”

    My wife and her mom line up for every Meryl Streep movie. They can find 10,000 films with 35 year old men in the lead, but where else but in a Meryl Street film is a 60 year old woman the focus?

  • MaryAnn

    where else but in a Meryl Street film is a 60 year old woman the focus?

    I agree that it’s great to see such a thing. But I refuse to settle for shit just because I’m desperate to see a wide range of characters as movie protagonists.

    So I guess, again, this is a question of certain movie critics being in the wrong demographic for a movie…

    Pedro, do you honestly believe that all women between 50 and 70 (or whatever you perceive the “demographic” to be for this film) think and feel the same way?

    A well-told story transcends “demographic.”

  • Liz

    I read your review of ‘It’s Complicated.’ and then my neice, (she’s 30)asked me to go with her to see it, her treat. When we are going in I mentioned to her what you had said about the kitchen and how I really wanted to see what got you so…upset? I have to say, I didn’t think that much of the kitchen. I be truthfull, I thought it was a dingy poky kitchen. Nice fridge though. The movie was tolerable, I’ve seen a lot worse. What really had my niece and I drooling, I mean pea green with envy. was the vegetable garden. Did you see those cabbages, the tomatoes, the peas. It was freaking fabulous. I want that garden. I can’t get tomatoes to grow like that up here in the north of Scotland, but this year I’m getting a greenhouse.

  • Bill

    Jim Halpert and Meryl Streep almost distracted me enough. it wasn’t till about the 1:10 mark that i realized i’d stepped in a steaming pile. i laughed a few times, but i was just angry by the time this thing wrapped up. it’s like a few winks and a nod away from being a clever, subtle parody of the kind of movie it turns out to be.

  • Paul Weissman

    Bravo on this review. It’s yuppie porn. I rented because I wanted to see a sophisticated adult comedy with three wonderful charasmatic performers. What I got was an infantile fantasy with great production design. And, by the way, owns a fabulous bakery, three apparently perfect children, a wonderful, supportive circle of friends but her life just isn’t complete without. . . a man! Jesus, what decade are we in.

    Oh, and she’s the first director I’ve seen who can make John Krasinski boring and unfunny. That is a feat in and of itself.

  • Sara

    I didn’t get hung up on the things most of you all did in this movie.
    I thought Streep and Baldwin were great together and Streep is amazing. Liked seeing Steve Martin cast differently.
    But the very very best in the whole movie was the fiancee. What a riot was he?! I thought he was fabulous.
    I wasn’t surprised at Streep’s ability to snag any man. What the heck is that about?

    I do think that if you haven’t been married (and perhaps divorced)—if you haven’t had *some* experience with this kind of scenario, you just wouldn’t get it. I watched it with my son and his fiancee and they didn’t get it at all. But they wouldn’t. It was a month before their wedding. With my college boyfriend (25 years ago boyfriend) standing out in the parking lot of our hotel calling me on his cell phone), it made it all a riot to me. Yes, I went out and spoke to him for a sec.

    So, for me, it wasn’t seen as unattainable at all, but all too easy to get caught up in. The house was great but I didn’t slobber over it, wishing I could have that kind of house. I was focusing on the relationship aspects, and all the triangles in this movie which were
    funny to me…believable too. I liked how the shrink handled the situation too—wise interpretation to Streep’s character in my opinion.

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