MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: It’s Complicated, The Lovely Bones, Nine, Police – Adjective, Did You Hear About the Morgans?

It’s Complicated (Three Stars)
U.S.; Nancy Meyers, 2009

It’s Complicated tries to show that age cannot wither, nor custom stale, even in Santa Barbara, with Meryl Streep making croissants, Alec Baldwin undergoing fertility tests and some funny smoke in the air. The movie costars Streep as a happy baker who’s lived too long unmarried, Baldwin as the jolly, lewd lawyer who divorced her ten years ago and now falls for her again, and Steve Martin as a shy architect who lights up whenever he and Streep discuss new additions. And it’s a romantic comedy about affluent people being naughty. In other words, it’s the modern equivalent of that old Hollywood Golden Age glory, the ’30s-’40s screwball comedy. It’s not hard, in fact, to see chunks of The Awful Truth and The Philadelphia Story swimming round in the glossy baker’s bowl that producer-director-writer Nancy Meyers whips into here.

Forgive the foody metaphors. (Streep keeps inspiring them, with both this movie and Julie and Julia.) But It’s Complicated is a mostly saucy little soufflé, whose emptiness doesn’t really spoil the taste — as long as it keeps serving up its peerless central threesome: a trois without a ménage.

Streep’s Jane Adler is a divorcee who lives on a luscious Santa Barbara estate that suggests Jane’s bakery-restaurant business has gone global: a bourgeois paradise that cinematographer John Toll has lit and shot so beautifully, you want to stick around and munch Jane’s croissants in the kitchen for a weekend or two. There, Jane has brought up her three children and sent them to college, mostly without Jake, who’s now a hot-to-trot attorney with an unkillable smirk and a skinny-bitch young wife (Lake Bell as Agness, with a hiss).

After all that, Jane and Jake reconnect at a fancy New York City hotel where the kids and family are having a celebration, and he talks her into a room and some post-marital horizontal bop. Martin’s Adam, meanwhile, is waiting in the wings: an architect with lots of plans, but also a lot less libido than Jake.

The movie keeps throwing these three (or four) together and pulling them apart, with a chorus of proudly randy gal pals (Rita Wilson and others) cheering Jane on.

The trouble with It’s Complicated though, is that it’s a movie that doesn’t really have great lines or great dialogue or great scenes. It simply has great croissants and three great comic actors, squeezing every risqué, hilarious drop out of Meyer’s innuendoes and out-you-endos. That’s what’s right with it. It’s has its flaws, and burps, but this is a movie with a nearly ideal cast, at least at the top. That smoking hot triangle of leads may not be as classic a trio as Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart in The Philadelphia Story, or Rosalind Russell, Grant and that actor who looks like Ralph Bellamy in His Girl Friday. But they make the move tick and spin like a naughty, singing clock — or whatever else they want it to do.

The naughtiness here involves both adultery (which Jane embraces at first delightedly, if guiltily) and marijuana, the weed from hell, which supplies both Martin’s and Streep’s’ funniest scene, and the film’s R rating. Why? As you’ve probably already heard, the always alert MPAA complained about the movie’s lack of examples of lives wrecked by ganja use. Apparently they were also concerned that children or teens watching the party scene will immediately dash off and seek out the neighborhood pot dealer, so they can get high like Auntie Meryl and Uncle Steve.

Tssskk, I say, Tssssk — though I was shocked – shocked! – when Alec Baldwin started romping around in the altogether at Jane’s mansion, smirking like a lord and belly happily a-flop, and then when he actually stuck an Ichat computer screen in front of his Little Alec. Isn’t anyone worried about teenagers doing that? (Over-eating, I mean.) We won’t mention what the adults do in the average family-accessible Hollywood action thriller. (An MPAA-style brainstorm: Couldn’t they have finessed the whole problem by running Reefer Madness as It’s Complicated’s official short subject?)

Enough of baiting the MPAA. They’re to be pitied, not censored. But it’s a genuine sign of what’s not so good with It’s Complicated, that the scene where Jane and Jake re-fall for each other — the luxury hotel contretemps, where they get high on legal martinis and gab, gaze and laugh at each other — is done as a near-wordless montage, climaxing with boudoir high jinks.

Uh uh. No way. This should have been a great scene. With great dialogue. And great moments. This should have been the equivalent of hitch-hiking expert Clark Gable’s thumb against Claudette Colbert’s knee in It Happened One Night. Or Joel McCrea and Jean Arthur playing no-look handsies on the stoop in The More, the Merrier. Or Cary and Roz blazing away as Ben Hecht’s immortal newspaper guys Walter Burns and Hildy Johnson in His Girl Friday, slashing, parrying and thrusting away in Burns’ office. (I’ve still got that dimple. And its still in the same place.)

That kind of funny, sexy, unforgettable stuff is what screwball comedies were born to deliver. Using a montage is a cheat. It’s hard to fathom why Meyers didn’t dream up some great pre-bedroom badinage, or try to show why this pair can still go nuts about each other. But, once you start to eliminate contemporary politics and culture as fit subjects for movie dialogue, which a lot of modern romantic comedies seem to have, what else can an increasingly lively and horny Jake and Jane talk about? Jake’s dimple? (Is it still in the same place.)

The cast still saves It’s. Baldwin, with his wicked-piggy grin and oily bedroom gab, is an 80 Rock-level hoot, about as funny as he could possibly be and still remain erect. Martin plays it mostly straight, but when he does have to get stoned (thereby ruining his life), he gives it his wild-and-crazy all. As for Meryl Streep, she’s both really funny and one of the most thoroughly plausible 50-something or 60-something sex symbols we’ve seen in a movie. (I couldn’t fathom why Jack was messing around with Agness.) Streep, to steal a cliché, actually lights up the screen whenever she comes on. (But remember, kids, it’ll ruin your life.)

What else? John Krasinski (The Office), as the Adler’s mugging son-in-law, who knows about the Jake-Jane hanky-panky, is fairly amusing too, though he’s not doing anything The Three Stooges couldn’t do better.

Meyers is not really trying to do a classic screwballer here. She’s trying to mix the old screwball stuff with the more modern, obviously psychological and sexually open social slants of post-’60s movie and TV comedy, trying to make these people both funny and real. And though she doesn’t quite pull it off, her threesome always take it to the limit.

By the way, I disagree with the reviews that complain that Streep’s Jane laughs too much in this movie — because it’s always in character. The Marx Brothers didn’t laugh. W. C. Fields didn’t laugh. Buster Keaton didn’t even smile. But real people do. And it’s the lack of character laughter in many of the best screwballers, by Preston Sturges, Hawks, McCarey or Gregory La Cava, that makes them seem so (attractively) stylized now. Laughter on screen doesn’t kill laughter in the audience, as long as it’s played right. (Like Garbo in Ninotchka, Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot or Bob Newhart in his great Walter Raleigh introducing-tobacco act.) Streep, along with everything else she can do, is a great laugher. (But shouldn’t pull up her sheets so much in the Baldwin bed scenes.)

I don’t usually much like Meyers confections. What Women Want and Something’s Gotta Give sometimes gave me heartburn. But It’s is a pretty funny show. And all three of the stars, despite what some ageist studio nerd might call advancing years or bad demographics, (Boo! Bigot!) are so charming and expert that we can even begin to believe that Santa Barbara mansion.

Still, I suspect women will like it a bit more than men — because Streep plays a sort of supermom-on-the-loose getting revenge and Baldwin and Martin are, respectively, a lecherous clown and a repressed softie. But that’s okay. The Awful Truth was mostly made for women (though men can enjoy it), just as Red River was mostly made for men (though women can dig that one too.) Meanwhile let’s all raise a glass, or a joint (beware of reefer madness!), to Alec Baldwin’s dimple, to Steve Martin inhaling, and to Meryl Streep, laughing. These three won’t ruin your life.


The Lovely Bones (Three Stars)
U. S.; Peter Jackson

Peter Jackson — or should we say Sir Peter Jackson — has a high old CGI time here, adapting Alice Sebold’s spooky-lyrical novel about the ghost of a poignant young teenage murder victim watching from Heaven the aftermath of her murder: the fates of the serial killer who destroyed her and the family and friends she left behind.

It’s a stunning-looking movie, with two remarkable performances — Saoirse Ronan as the victim, Susie Salmon, and Stanley Tucci as the neighbor/killer, George Harvey. Bravo to both. And the heavenly effects are, as you’d expect, spellbindingly over the top. Jackson and his effects people, and cinematographer Andrew Lesnie (of The Lord of the Rings trilogy) keep sliding you from one psychedelic fantasy-scape to another, with such nonstop virtuosity that Bones becomes almost oppressively imaginative.

Ronan helps hold it altogether. The young star of Atonement gives us the near-essence of girlhood, innocence and live-wire young beauty. Tucci is blood-chilling. Perhaps he’s watched tapes of the creepily bland and self-effacing serial killer/cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer. At any rate, Tucci catches that sense of oddly reasonable-sounding mushy calm that Dahmer had, and when George’s psyche begins to splinter in several scenes, it’s primally scary.

The rest of the cast are more ordinary, though Susan Sarandon has a grande dame scene-stealing turn as salty old Grandma Lynn. Mark Wahlberg and Rachel Weisz, as Susie’s parents, however, rarely ring true.

The Lovely Bones is something of a disappointment, but only because Jackson and his co-
writers (Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, are also responsible for the first 2000 decade’s best movie achievement, The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Since The Lovely Bones is not, obviously, in that category — not even one of this year’s best movies, there’s been a tendency to over-knock it. Had this movie come out of nowhere, it might not have been so savagely treated by some. But heaven can’t be captured by a computer; knighthood can have its drawbacks.


Nine (Two and a Half Stars)
U. S.; Rob Marshall, 2009

8 ½, Federico Fellini’s 1963 mega-classic about a movie director’s inner life and outer turbulence, is a masterpiece born of apparent chaos. Rob Marshall’s movie musical Nine, adapted from the Broadway hit inspired by 8 ½, is closer to chaos born of a masterpiece. That doesn’t mean it’s not entertaining. Miscast, and visually overwrought and misconceived as it might be, it’s still a big opportunity (sometimes wasted, sometimes not), for some excellent actors and classy technicians to strut their stuff. What it’s not is a really memorable or delightful musical.

Nine tries to whirl gorgeously around the Felliniesque figure of Italian star filmmaker Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis) — who, like the original 8 ½ Guido (played by Marcello Mastroianni and based on Fellini himself) is trying to keep going a huge movie at Cinecitta Studio, despite the fact that the production is in turmoil, and he hasn’t yet completed the script. (That’s something that was sometimes true for both Fellini and his youthful idol, Billy Wilder).

As Cinecitta waits for Guido, his women/loves/muses constantly pop in for showcase numbers, including Marion Cotillard’s Luisa (as Guido’s wife, played by Anouk Aimee in 8 ½), Penelope Cruz’s Carla (as his mistress, played in 8 ½ by Fellini’s mistress, Sandra Milo), Nicole Kidman (as his star, Claudia), Kate Hudson (as nosy reporter Stephanie), Judi Dench (as know-all costume designer Lilli), Fergie (as Saraghina, the monster of remembered sexuality, who was played by Edra Gale in 8 ½), and by Sophia Loren (as his Mamma). All of them get a star number. Guido gets two.

I know little about the stage versions of Nine, but they were both audience and critical hits. The first provided Raul Julia with one of his best roles, as Guido — and briefly made a star of the epically voluptuous Anita Morris, who later hit her cinematic high point in the video of the Rolling Stones, “She Was Hot”. I adore 8 ½ and I also dug “She Was Hot”.

But Marshall’s Nine probably lost the war as soon as the estimable Daniel Day-Lewis was miscast as Guido. Day-Lewis certainly has the brains and charisma to play a genius filmmaker. But his bonier and even ascetic-looking features suggest more of a Pier Paolo Pasolini or an Ingmar Bergman than the sensual, fleshy Fellini/Guido. (Better casting might have been Antonio Banderas, who won plaudits as Guido in the Broadway revival.) The ladies are all charmers, but none of these numbers stuck in my mind except for Fergie/Saraghina’s exuberant “Be Italian.”

Fellini moved in his career from classics of neo-realism, including I Vitelloni, La Strada and his scripts for Open City and Paisa, to the color phantasmagorias of his later years, and Nine could have used a comparably fluid, versatile touch. (Fellini’s last movie, the wistful fantasy Voices of the Moon, starring Roberto Benigni, has never even been distributed here.) It also could have used the magnificent Nino Rota, whose buoyant, lilting, carnivalesque scores for Fellini place him and Maestro Federico among the all-time great director-composer teams.

And it probably could have used even more black and white cinematography. (Monochrome keeps appearing in the musical numbers.) We tend to remember Fellini in color, but most of his masterpieces were in black and white; that more restrained palette tends to work better against his tendency for over-packed imagery and over-indulgence. The monochrome in Nine is usually lovely.

Even though I thought Chicago was overrated, I’m perfectly willing to let Rob Marshall revive the movie musical. Other directors should too. Bring on all those Stephen Sondheim shows nobody ever filmed. Nine is the kind of movie where you really want to see a director shoot the works, like Baz Luhrman did in Moulin Rouge! But Nine is a more ordinary spectacle. It often sings, rarely soars. Ciao, Federico. Ciao Cinecitta. We love you and miss you.


Did You Hear About The Morgans? (One and a Half Stars)
U. S.; Marc Lawrence, 2009

Believe me: You don’t want to hear this. I hate to say it again, but we need more adult gab in our romantic comedies, at least the ones intended for adults. Did You Hear About the Morgans, from writer-director Marc Lawrence, is another would-be screwball comedy that’s hotter on wardrobes than on witty talk or keen characterizations.

Remember when the old screwballers worked their magic, which often involved sharp topical humor, on a few Hollywood stages and a handful of exteriors? Here, writer-director Marc Lawrence dreams up an affluent, glam Big Apple divorced couple, star realtor Sarah Jessica Parker and star lawyer Hugh Grant, and then maneuvers them into witnessing a murder and getting forced into witness protection together, racing them all over New York City and points west, without giving either of them a single funny joke. But the well-dressed, feuding pair do learn to be tolerant of each other and of their Western hosts, Sam Elliott and Mary Steenburgen — who don’t get any good jokes either.

The usually suave and chipper Grant has been unwisely encouraged to haul out a Brit silly snob act that wouldn’t have worked even if John Cleese were around to goose it up. Nothing much in the picture makes sense, and I began to root for the killer chasing them, not because his jokes were any better, but simply to get the show over and done with. The movie climaxes with a doltish rodeo scene, with Sarah and Hugh in a tandem clown-horse outfit, hauling out the obvious Who’s a horse’s ass? moment. But sadly, the horses don’t get any good jokes either. Not even a witty whinny.


Police, Adjective (Three Stars)
Romania; Corneliu Porumboiu

The new Romanian films have been spare but bracing experiences, pleasurable for their sheer simplicity and cinematic austerity. Porumboiu’s new film is no exception: the ultra-minimalist tale of a young Romanian policeman (Dragos Bucor) undergoing a moral crisis over his impending bust of a teenage drug dealer. The cop’s problems are complicated, but they’re handled semantically. This may be one of the only films where a dramatic impasse is busted by a dictionary. The movie will please some aficionados, but puzzle more casual filmgoers, who — if they ever wander into this one — will wonder why dictionaries, and definitions, and adjectives, are so important. (In Romanian, with English subtitles).

– Michael Wilmington
December 31, 2009

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon