I've always enjoyed Nancy Myers' films, particularly the shift of perspective she offers in relationships between men and women. Watching Jack Nicholson embrace vulnerability in Something's Gotta Give or Mel Gibson transform from a sexist, arrogant ass to a respectful – and respected – gentleman in What Women Want is my idea of really good movie watching.
It's Complicated follows a similar script, this time exploring the dynamics of a divorced couple coming back into each others' lives. We've all seen this one before: the hysterical, middle-aged, victim wife; the wealthy, handsome, rational husband, and his young, dumb, sex-kitten mistress. There are only two winners in this game (if that), and the ex-wife certainly isn't one of them.
In Myers' version, however, the tables have been dramatically turned on the old, male-directed standard. It is the dissatisfied, emotional, and erratic ex-husband (Alec Baldwin) chasing the accomplished, confident, happy-to-be-single ex-wife (Meryl Streep), who, incidentally, is also being pursued by the charming Steve Martin. The woman is calling the shots this time, handling every move with grace, dignity, and kindness.
What's more, the 'mistress' role is not inhabited by some silly ditz a la The First Wives Club. Instead, the bright, young, and gorgeous second wife has a child, a terrific career, and a rapier wit. Not only is this combination of assets refreshing (how often are sexy, stunning, young women also brilliant, accomplished, and classy in the media today?); a sigh of glorious relief follows a scene in which the ex-wife, in contemplating her successor, admires rather than criticizes the latter's wisdom and accomplishments, thus shattering the ridiculous and pervasive notion that women are genetically prone to cat-fights whenever two or more are in the same room, or interested in the same man. Hallelujah.
But the best part of all is Myers' subtle directorial choices that bellow with commentary on no less than the very nature of relationships and families. The ex-husband's dissatisfaction in his second marriage stems not from sexual boredom, but rather, from a lack of and desire for a deep, intimate, emotional connection. Myers challenges here not only what turns men (and women) on, but a society that refuses to publically imagine that long-term commitments and families are in fact sexy… increasingly so as time goes by. Indeed, it is still the ex-wife who possesses the emotional, intellectual, and sexual allure, which Baldwin's character relentlessly pursues in spite of a newer, younger, and scantily-clad (as well as brilliant) bride begging for sex.
Sometimes you aren't aware of the landscape before you until something upon it shifts. While I was certainly pleased by these bold new relational choices, I sat in the theater shocked more by the fact that they seemed foreign and even surprising to me. Like all of us fed a constant media diet of culturally accepted values and mores, negative concepts and stereotypes sneaked into my way of seeing and accepting the world, in spite of the fact that I consciously hold very different ideas about it.
Those ideas are as follows: Women are indeed just as powerful, comfortable – and capable of – being independent as men. Men long for intimacy, commitment, and connection as much as women, and are all the more turned on when they find it. People are not meant to be disposable; in relationships of every kind, we are all looking for long-term connections that will, by their enduring nature, bring increasing amounts of meaning and joy to our lives.
Feminist thinkers and psychologists including Jean Baker Miller, Mary Pipher, and Carol Gilligan have been writing about these important issues for years. Thank you, Nancy Myers, for bringing them to the forefront of our awareness on the big screen.