x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

It's Complicated

Assured, mature performances save this Streep vehicle from a creaky storyline about a late-flowering love life.

Meryl Streep as Jane and Steve Martin as Adam in It's Complicated.
Meryl Streep as Jane and Steve Martin as Adam in It's Complicated.

Hot on the heels of Julie & Julia and Mamma Mia!, Meryl Streep's bid to become the patron saint of middle-aged screen sirens continues unabated with the quirky menopausal comedy It's Complicated. This time Streep is a wealthy Californian divorcee and bakery owner called Jane, a vivacious variant of the Donna Sheridan character she played in Mamma Mia!. And although the locales have been altered slightly (seaside Greece becomes seaside Santa Barbara), Streep's crises remain the same - how to balance the demands of modern motherhood with her own increasingly convoluted and late-flowering love life.

The trick here, and part of the movie's quiet kick, is that Streep and her co-stars Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin wring such unfussy empathy out of their ostensibly hackneyed love triangle that you quickly overlook the film's structural shortcomings. Those familiar with the writer-director Nancy Meyers's previous films (What Women Want, Something's Gotta Give) will immediately recognise the aspirational social milieu, here depicted in an opening-scene party where Jane bickers incessantly with her galumphing ex-husband Jake (Baldwin), before fading in the face of Jake's glamorous and much younger wife Agness (Lake Bell). Soon, however, and thanks to a chance encounter in a New York hotel bar, Jane and Jake rekindle the conjugal flame of old and begin a passionate affair - "I'm the other woman!" hoots Jane at one of her many gatherings of middle-aged gal-pals (including Rita Wilson and Mary Kay Place), in scenes that, again, echo the giddy bantering of Streep, Julie Walters and Christine Baranski in Mamma Mia!.

Jane, nonetheless, is also being pursued by Adam (Steve Martin), a local architect and recovering divorcee. A sensitive lover of French cinema who also listens to self-help CDs, Adam is the delicate new man to Jake's bruising and womanising alpha male. And yet, as the story progresses and Jake begins subtly to revert to type, Meyers slowly makes the case for Adam as Jane's ideal suitor. Although he might lack Jake's predatory zing, he is given delicious scene-stealers, such as his outlandish dance at a graduation party, or the moment when he softly confesses to the fiftysomething Jane: "Your age is one of my favourite things about you."

All this, at first, is ostensibly a formal excuse for Meyers to execute a plethora of screwball encounters and comic set-pieces. She has fun pitching Jake and Jane illicitly into the same hotel as their soon-to-be-wed daughter Lauren (Caitlin Fitzgerald) and her fiancé, Harley (John Krasinski), while she clearly relishes the slightly overworked show-stopper in which a naked Jake "accidentally" sits in front of the video link to Adam's computer (much wincing and dry retching ensues).

And yet the broader, often tiresome shenanigans are nevertheless weighted by a certain, almost revolutionary, integrity in the movie's approach to its ageing big-name protagonists. Streep, for instance, in an early scene, visits a plastic surgery clinic where, in punishing close-up, she pokes and pulls at the loose flesh that hangs from her lids. It's a small moment, and one designed to scare Jane away from surgery, but it is certainly arresting and taboo-busting for youth-obsessed Hollywood cinema. Can you imagine, say, Kim Basinger or Meg Ryan taking the same risks with their beauty in the same scene?

Similarly, Baldwin is an actor who has long since been accused of trying to cover up his not insignificant embonpoint (an entire chapter of Art Linson's Hollywood memoir, What Just Happened, is devoted to Baldwin's weight obsessions on the set of The Edge). And here, too, his size is the subject of repeated self-deprecation (he grips his girth and complains that Agness allows him to eat everything), some gentle ribbing on Jane's part (she calls him "big guy"), and, most notably, the aforementioned nude scene. Not even Martin escapes unscathed, and features in several unsparing shots that hide none of his 64 years.

With any other actors this might have seemed like crass sermonising on behalf of the sexagenarian elite. But the knockout triumvirate of Streep, Baldwin and Martin brings such unspoken dignity to their characters that their conspicuous ageing seems more original and interesting than the traditional character foibles of ditzy young starlets and hunky paramours that so often define the genre. They have together transformed what is in effect a Meryl Streep vehicle with a creaky narrative into a masterclass of confident, comedic screen acting.