Monday, December 7, 2009

It's Complicated

Complicated? You know what's complicated? Me having to sit here, knowing that the Black List is being compiled, and not being able to see it! That's complicated. Friday is B-Day. Right here is where you'll get the most comprehensive Black List coverage on the web. So count it down with me.

Genre: Romantic Comedy
Premise: A divorced woman in her 50s starts sleeping with her ex-husband, who’s now married to the very woman he left her for, making her the “other woman.”
About: This is Nancy Meyers’ (The Queen of Rom Com) new movie. The Father Of The Bride writer also helmed the project, which stars Alec Baldwin, Meryl Streep, and Steve Martin. Alec Baldwin is getting some Oscar buzz for his performance in the film, but consider it more mosquito level buzz and not, say, fire alarm buzz, as it seems these kudos popping up only a week after Alec Baldwin declared he was a failed actor and plans to retire soon (yeah right. Like any actor has ever willingly retired). Sympathy buzz to keep him in the game methinks?
Writer: Nancy Meyers
Details: 127 pages (2008 draft)

When you’re talking about rom coms, Nancy Meyers is the genre's go-to scribe. When and how that happened, I’m still trying to figure out. It probably has something to do with Hollywood deciding to destroy the romantic comedy by putting Matthew McConaughey in all of them. By giving female audiences some eye candy to look at for two hours and not a lick more, they lowered the bar so much, not even Vern Troyer can get under it. Now that would be a rom com worth seeing. Vern Troyer falling in love.

Anyway, I want to make it clear that I don’t dislike Nancy Meyers. But I do think she heavily skews her writing to please the female crowd, and pretty much ignores us dudes. As a result we get a lot of overly sappy, heavy on the schmaltz, love fests whose greatest accomplishment is making your female date go, “Awwwww” at least five times during the two hours. Whatever happened to romantic comedies with edge? Like Pretty Woman? The lead female was a hooker for God’s sake! I wonder if anybody'd have the balls to make that today.

Well, word on the street is that “It’s Complicated” is good. Of course, this time of year every movie is good because, well, it’s “For Your Consideration” season. For those who don’t live in Los Angeles, this is a very strange fortnight whereby studios pay thousands upon thousands of dollars to place “For Your Consideration” ads in the major trade magazines. You see very intensely lit dramatic shots of, say, Kevin James, accompanied by, I kid you not, the words, “For Your Consideration. Best Actor: Kevin James.” The magazines don’t even run any articles during this time. It’s all about propping up actors and movies that have no business being propped up.

But I digress. Luckily, we get to cut through the shit here and see the project in its most basic buzz-free form, the script. So how is the script for “It’s Complicated?”

Jane is in her fifties but, as Meyers puts it, “…knows 50 is not the new 40 and because of that, she is still described by all who know her as beautiful.” It’s been ten years since her and her lawyer husband, Jake, got divorced so you’d think she’d be over it. And for the most part, she is. But the youngest of Jane’s three children is finally heading off to L.A. to pursue acting, and while Jane’s thrilled for her, it means she’ll be all by herself for the first time since the divorce.

Her rom-com friendly occupation of owning a bakery only takes so much time out of the day, so she’s decided to distract herself by building an addition to her house that will take advantage of the wonderful view on the far side of her home (rich people have such difficult lives). Adam, the handsome-but-doesn’t-know-it 40 year old architect, swoops in to manage the project and although the last thing Jane wants is the complication that comes with any sort of romantic involvement, there’s clearly a chemistry between the two, so she lets him in.

However, when she and the kids fly in to Chicago for their son Luke’s college graduation, Jane finds herself repeatedly bumping into Jake. Jake’s life-path feels a bit like the bitter divorced female’s version of the perfect revenge. He may have landed the hot young piece of ass he left his wife for, but reality kicked in five years later, and now the two have nothing in common, never have sex, and Jake has to take care of a bizarre 5 year old named Pedro who he has nothing in common with.

When his wife cancels out on a last second date, Jake ends up bumping into Jane at dinner. The two loosen up with a couple of drinks, and before you know it, they’re reminiscing about old times. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never heard a story about two exes having drinks and reminiscing about old times that DIDN’T end up in sex. Sadly (or happily) Jake and Jane don’t break the mold (side note: Meyers gets extra credit for giving us the first over-50 sex scene in eight years that doesn’t mention Viagra!)

For those women out there complaining there are no empowering roles for women in movies these days, well get out your butterscotch cookies and celebrate because “It’s Complicated” is your salvation. This is always Jane’s story, and after the sex, it becomes all about Jake’s pursuit of Jane, with Jane calling the shots, as opposed to the other way around, which is what we’ve been seeing for the last 100 years in film.

Back at home, between square footage measurements and tile choices, the cautious Adam makes his move on Jane. The guy was hurt a lot worse than she ever was (his wife left him for his best friend) and it’s clear he hasn’t emotionally opened himself up since the divorce. Jane, with her motherly instincts and safe demeanor, seems like a perfect fit for him, which makes his pursuit all the more teeth-clenching, as we can see that she’s obviously still in love with her ex-husband, and is surely going to hurt this poor guy.

The script’s drive extends from this dilemma, as we wonder which man she’s going to choose. Meyers does a really good job making you care about both of them, resulting in a final decision that’s bittersweet, since we're pulling for both to win the prize.

What I realized while reading “It’s Complicated” is that while Meyers’ dialogue is by no means great, it’s always very good, keeping the reader engaged and attentive. She also does a solid job of juggling characters, which there are many of in the script. Afterwards I remembered them all, which, as anyone who reads a lot of non-professional scripts knows, is really freaking rare.

But despite how well it’s written and despite how well Meyers understands the craft, “It’s Complicated” is never anything more than a well-executed romantic comedy. It doesn’t possess that “je ne sais quoi” (yes, I just went French) that elevates a romantic comedy above the standard fare. But it’s still miles better than anything about girlfriends with ghosts and their pasts or ten ways to make sure she knows that you’re not into yourself, or whatever the hell those movies are. This is a movie with some heart and if you’re into romantic comedies, it’s a present you may want to unwrap come Christmas day.

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] barely kept my interest
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: If someone were to ask me what the top three mistakes beginning writers make when writing a script were, somewhere in there would be “coming into the story too early.” You hear this advice in every screenwriting book ever written. Still, writers continue to ignore it. If you take It’s Complicated as an example, here’s the idea Meyers started out with: “What if a woman lost her husband to the younger hotter woman he had an affair with, then ten years later, he realized his mistake and began to have an affair with her, his ex-wife?” It’s a great idea. But there’s a lot of ways to approach it. Specifically, when, during that timeline, do you jump into the story? The beginning writer will usually jump in early. He may even start the script back when the husband and wife were still together, showing how the young hottie-potottie came in, wedged them apart, took him, maybe show a montage or jump to ten years later, then get into the current problems in these ex-couple’s lives, etc. This would be a mistake. The hook here is Jane having an affair with her ex-husband. *That’s* the story we came to see so that’s the story we have to get to as soon as possible. Wisely, Meyers recognizes this, and starts the movie ten years after the divorce. The stuff about the past is alluded to in dialogue quickly and efficiently, allowing us to focus on the hook, which is where the meat of the story is. So always ask yourself, “Have I started late enough in my story?”