In a year that counts three films by women—The Headless Woman, 35 Shots of Rum and The Hurt Locker—among its most daring and widely embraced work, it’s beyond offensive that Nancy Meyers’s glossy, sanitized portrait of middle-aged womanhood should be marketed as the studios’ holiday gift to their long-neglected female audience. The territory could scarcely be more familiar: a variation on the 30s comedy of remarriage, the film follows a pair of exes (Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwin) trying to rekindle their flame as they face one more child leaving the nest. Drama ensues when the woman, who has built herself a cushy life as the owner of a successful bakery, begins to weigh her options with the tender-hearted, recently divorced architect (Steve Martin) who is helping design her dream home. Overwhelming the plot’s rom-com conventions is an upper-middle-class fantasy less escapist than insulting. Coming out alongside Up in the Air’s self-conscious reflection on our economic crisis, Meyers’ blithe vision of undisturbed financial stability—complete with lingering shots of well-groomed lawns and pristine suburban interiors—can’t help but seem a little tactless.
How is it, then, that It’s Complicated—whose troubles are only worsened by one of the writer-director’s clumsiest screenplays—achieves such a giddy high right around its final third? Is it the delight of watching Meyers put Baldwin through the same strip-tease that led Diane Keaton (Something’s Gotta Give) to a late-career Oscar nomination? Is it the idea of Streep, so long renowned for her uptight and studious portrayals of foreign women, finally letting loose with a few puffs of pot? The relinquishment of actorly defenses is certainly the main ingredient of the film’s charm. As the two suitors, Baldwin and Martin deliver the goods with their respective shticks—one hammy, the other dopey. But predictably the real treasure is Streep, who tops off her best decade yet with a performance that combines her newfound looseness with flashes of exquisite vulnerability. Neither her comic nor her emotional faculties seemed fully formed before she hit her stride in the early 00s, and while she is never as sharp-tongued as Katharine Hepburn or Rosalind Russell, she finds the same expressive, screwball freedom in a vocabulary of huffs, yelps, and perfectly timed eye rolls. It’s Complicated gets away with its shoddy construction by fashioning itself as a valentine to her stunning oval face, putty-like features, and improbable stardom.
Opens December 25