Saturday, 30 January 2010

Film review: It's Complicated

The billing of this film as a "romantic comedy", and the impression of the film being communicated through the media, are deceptive. That's not to say that they are innaccurate; it is to say that there is an element of depth present in the film that is not expressed in the label "romantic comedy".

The Unites States Conference of Catholic Bishops movie site review can be found here (but they have mixed part of the text with text from the review of another film), and it classifies the film as follows; the rating in the UK is 15:
The film contains complex moral issues; skewed values; implied sexual activity, some of it adulterous; off-screen masturbation; fleeting rear nudity; considerable drug use; some sexual references and humor; and a half-dozen crude or crass terms. The USCCB Office for Film & Broadcasting classification is L -- limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R -- restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.

The film is certainly very funny, with scenes that had the whole cinema (and it was full on a Friday evening) laughing out loud. It is interesting to compare the cinematography to that of Up in the Air. In some ways Up in the Air is a well filmed film; but It's Complicated outclasses it in terms of its communication of facial expressions, what a sociologist might term the non-verbal communication. This is largely, I felt, down to Meryl Streep, the portrayal of whose character attracts the descriptor "well delineated" in the USCCB review. The first paragraphs of the review on the Guardian website suggest a particular genre to which It's Complicated is a modern day successor; the account given in the notes on the film's own website, particularly the "questions and answers" with the writer/director/producer Nancy Meyers - go here, and scroll down to around page 23, - suggest a more autobiographical origin. The relationship of the film to the producer's own experience would be interesting to explore further - as you will see below, I thought there was a moral questioning on the part of Meryl Streep's character that the producer does not seem to refer to in the notes and I wonder whether it is perhaps latent in Nancy Meyer's own experience of divorce, and life after divorce.

What are the ethically problematical aspects of the film? Looked at in one way, the film reflects the experience of divorce that may be widespread in American and British society now - divorce, and more significantly, the possibility of re-marriage after divorce, have been possible for so long now that very few people are unaffected by it. But, from the point of view of Catholics who see this film, there is value in recognising the way in which it assumes divorce and re-marriage as normal parts of life, and retaining some sense of challenge to that assumption of their normality. There is a similar assumption about the place of sexual activity in peoples lives. Despite the discretion appropriate to a film rated 15, the message being communicated by the film is that there was nothing ethically wrong with the sexual encounters between Meryl Streep's character and Alec Baldwin's - and, by extension, what one might term "irregular" sexual activity in general is fine. The subtlety of the fact that, in the eyes of the Catholic Church they might still be seen as married, does not overcome the injustice towards Alec Baldwin's second wife that is expressed in these encounters. The worrying thing is that this message is almost subliminal - I suspect that most cinema goers will not identify this as a message in the film at all. I think the USCCB rating's reference to "problematic content" very nicely expresses what I am trying to say here.

I thought the film had an interesting portrayal of age, though perhaps that might be better expressed as a portrayal of a difference between the generation of Meryl Streep's, Alec Baldwin's and Steve Martin's characters and the generation of their children (or between those brought up in the 60's/70's generation and those who are young now?). The film shows the older generation going first in drug taking, for example, and in sexual activity. Was there an implicit intention to suggest that the relationship between oldest daughter and fiance, shown planning their wedding during the course of the film, is still chaste? The oldies are really the rebels, undergoing their second adolescence. Or, as the review on the Daily Mirror blog says:
It's Complicated is a sophisticated sex comedy for the middle-aged... a goodnatured romp in which well-to-do people act like teenagers, deal with unexpected emotions and fumble around a few mildly sexual escapades.
I don't really agree with the Mirror's reviewer, as I think there is a serious side to the film that he has missed and the sexual escapades are rather central to the storyline. There is, I think, an interesting exploration of a number of issues around the experience of divorce. The one most explicitly shown is that of the impact of the divorce - and the possibility of later rapprochement - on the children involved. Meryl and Alec's children are still shown having a genuine affection for their Dad, even though he has re-married, and are shocked when, at one point, Meryl is trying to send him away from the house. Towards the end of the film, when Meryl is explaining that she is not going to get together with their Dad again, one the children does say that they are still trying to get over the effects of the divorce. Another is the anxiety to have children in the second marriage. And yet another is the question of justice in the network of relations that results after a divorce - the injustice, perhaps with a two-way nature, in the relationship between those who have divorced, an injustice of the second wife's relationship to the husband in its relation to the first wife. In the context of the storyline of the film, there is also an injustice of Alec Baldwin's character towards his second wife and, as she goes along with the affair, an injustice towards the second wife by Meryl Streep's character.

But if one is looking for a positive moral tone in the film I think it lies in a fundamental difference between the character portrayed by Alec Baldwin and that portrayed by Meryl Streep. Alec's motiviation in the affair with Meryl appears primarily sexual; it is the bed that matters, and he is unable to read Meryl's efforts to say "no", seeing it as "why do you always say no before you say yes". His betrayal of his second wife is clear, movingly portrayed in the scene where he puts her son Pedro to bed, and at no point during the affair does he show any moral sensitivity at all. Meryl's character does, however, ask the question as to whether she is doing the right thing. The film hesitates to express this in terms of a moral questioning and shows it instead in a more psychological/social light; and the questions and answers in the notes on the film express it in terms of Meryl's character in some way seeking the approval of those around her . When Meryl goes to see her psychiatrist about this, she directly asks him to tell her whether or not she is doing the right thing if she goes ahead with this affair, recognising that in doing so she is going quite counter to the non-directive nature of counselling.

But it does look very much like someone wrestling with their conscience, knowing deep down that going ahead with this affair is wrong, and trying to find a definitive answer to an essentially moral question. At the end of the film, when it is clear Meryl and Alec are not going to get back together, he asks her whether or not she regrets at least having tried to give things another go. Meryl answers "no, she doesn't regret it", but that is not very convincing when compared to her earlier questioning of its rightness. This late scene, however, expresses something that is latent in the whole story: it is Alec's character who leads Meryl's character astray, into doing things that, left to herself, she would not have done, and in which she recognised the injustice; this even extends to her expression of "no regrets", which I do not think she would have made unprompted. It is a cute ending to a film; but only really shows Alec's character seeking a last possibility of approval for actions that are inexcusable.

A gender role reversal: Adam is offering the apple to Eve who at first takes it, but then struggles through to give it back.

I suspect that a moral sense was not directly intentional on the part of Nancy Meyer, the writer/producer/director (cf the notes on the film website); but It's Complicated left me wondering how much it might be part of an experience of living after divorce.

No comments: