‘It’s Complicated’ isn’t really, and that’s the problem

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Film Critic

The problem with “It’s Complicated,” a romantic comedy about the menopausal crowd starring Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin, is that it’s not nearly complicated enough.

The film is the latest from writer-director Nancy Meyers, who has been working through her issues on screen for at least 20 years, starting with “Baby Boom” in 1987 through “Something’s Gotta Give” in 2003. But the vulnerability and smartness as well as the funny, with which she infused those earlier films, are harder to find here. Instead she’s given us her thinnest slice of comic relationship angst yet, proving, I guess, that you actually can be too thin.

By the way, if the menopausal reference made you groan, I only mention it because Meyers makes so much of it, having Streep fan away hot flashes in nearly every scene. Besides, I resisted jumping right into Baldwin’s whole Flomax story line (if you’re not familiar with Flomax, think men, prostate problems and heart palpitations at the most inconvenient of times).

Let’s back up for a moment. Streep and Baldwin are Jane and Jake Adler, married for 20 years, now divorced for another 10. They’ve gone from bitter to a bit nostalgic about what they once had, a very relatable starting point given the high rates of divorce among baby boomers.

Whether writing, directing or both this is usually when Meyers is in the zone -- tapping into the cultural and emotional zeitgeist of women, especially well-educated, A-types. Diane Keaton’s “tiger lady” in “Baby Boom,” was a classic -- at the top of the male-dominated ad game, ignoring her biological clock only to have a baby dropped in her lap.

The filmmaker has worked variations of that formula with great success since. In directing 2000’s “What Women Want,” Meyers had Gibson getting in touch with his feminine side before most men in America knew they had one. By the time she hit with “Something’s Gotta Give,” Meyers was going right for the trophy wife / girlfriend jugular, while taking an early swing at the inverse with young doctor Keanu falling head over heels for Keaton’s older woman.

Though sex, usually of the satisfying sort, was always in the offing, it was never center stage. With “It’s Complicated” Meyers pokes at the myth that sex drive for women dies in their 30s, certainly a just and noble cause, but somehow forgets the moxie, savvy and sense of self her best characters have. For all their insecurities, Meyers’ women aren’t desperate.

Streep’s Jane seems exactly that -- a little too little girl lost, with sex not just the answer but the central conceit. Consider what Meyers offers up as complications: no sex, Jake’s much younger wife, lots of sex, Jane’s new boyfriend, possible sex, girlfriend gab sessions about having or not having sex, Jane’s drunken night in NYC with the ex filled with . . . you got it, sex, though mostly over-heated and under the covers.

Now if this is starting to sound more like a Judd Apatow movie, you’re right, only Apatow does the whole want it, need it, got to have it sex thing so much better. And trust me, that was a very tough sentence to write, but then so was getting past the line about Jane’s bikini waxing habits -- not because it was offensive, but because it felt so lazy on Meyers’ part.

As is always the case in the filmmaker’s movies, the problems for Jane and Jake are high-class ones. “It’s Complicated” is set in the lush affluence of Santa Barbara, a lot of the movie unfolding in Jane’s sprawling old Spanish charmer with the Pacific in the distance.

Since her divorce, Jane has developed a high-end bakery business that specializes in the sort of French pastries that most of the people in the film wouldn’t even sniff for fear of inhaling unwanted calories. The economic divide between Jane’s life and Jake’s is the difference between booking the standard room versus the deluxe suite at New York’s Park Regent Hotel, where they’ve gone for son Luke’s graduation -- though the hotel is fictional you just know all of its five stars are very shiny.

The couple’s three kids, Luke, Lauren and Gabby, played by Hunter Parrish, Caitlin Fitzgerald and Zoe Kazan, are technically there to help create tension about Mom and Dad’s secret New York fling, which becomes a certifiable affair when they return to Santa Barbara. Though the “What would this do to the kids” question, a very valid one, is thrown around, the kids are little more than pretty blond window dressing in Jane and Jake’s life.

The one character you want the Adlers to adopt and that you wish Meyers had put in twice as many scenes is John Krasinski as Lauren’s fiancé. He’s got such terrific comic timing you hope Hollywood will get him out of “The Office,” where he spends most of his time, a little more often.

“It’s Complicated” starts slow -- a trip down memory lane as Jane and Jake bump into each other at the 30th anniversary party for one of their mutual friends. It also serves to introduce us to Jake’s immediately unlikable much younger wife, played by Lake Bell, who first came into their lives as the other woman. By the time we get to Jane and Jake’s New York encounter -- the drunken ex sex -- you’re just so glad something’s finally happening that the moral implications get shelved for a bit.

Baldwin is in charge of most of the comedy, and he works the ironic bad boy thing with his usual panache. The actor, who “30 Rock” thankfully resurrected, gets every laugh he’s supposed to, it’s just that Meyers has mostly given him cheap tricks. Speaking of . . . props to Baldwin and his belly for being willing to go full Monty for some of those laughs, and props to Meyers for leaving a few things about his Botticelli reclining on a bed pose to the imagination.

Meanwhile, Meryl is Meryl -- an actress so adept that she floats through the film even in the spots where everything goes flat around her. But even she struggles with the clichés, from bemoaning her newly emptied nest with a line about “The Hills” to all that hot-flash fanning.

There’s a scene later in the movie that finds Jane and Jake talking honestly about their relationship and with just a few words say many things about navigating the difficult waters of post-divorce relationships. The surprise of the moment was that it actually felt real; the disappointment is that there weren’t more of them.