Empty nest: Meryl Streep contemplates the dining room, while her kitchen lurks in the background, like the shark in Jaws.
Hollywood has long presented audiences with all kinds of glamour to fuel escapist fantasy and aspirational dreams. We lose ourselves in the lives of better-looking, better-dressed people in lavish settings. But sometimes Hollywood gets carried away, and I found a prime example of excess in Nancy Meyers’ It’s Complicated, a film from 2009 which I watched recently because it was either that or Tank Girl. My roommate drives a hard bargain, though evidently he’s got a thing for blonde protagonists in improbable circumstances.
I’d seen a couple of Meyers’ other movies, and so I thought I was prepared for this one. Meyers would yet again cater to the fantasies and aspirations of women who may be over 35 and therefore who, as far as the rest of Hollywood is concerned, do not exist. I figured Nancy Meyers would yet again give us a heroine of a Certain Age who is prosperous and accomplished and sexually desirable to multiple men, and who makes good decisions after some missteps. People who have seen even more of Meyers’ movies warned me that there would also be really nice kitchens. It’s Complicated goes beyond mere fantasy, however, to the realm of pornography.
The first fantasy/aspiration I noticed was the wine. About three scenes in, I realized that people had been drinking wine ever since the movie started. Drinking wine is something that women like to do. I know this, and I sympathize — but as the movie continued, the wine kept flowing. Again and again, in scene after scene, we see wine and more wine. (Please note the Special Advisory at the end of this essay.)
I also noticed — and sympathized with — the representation of friendship among women as a sisterhood. This involves drinking wine, talking about sex, and Mary Kay Place. Well, who wouldn’t want Mary Kay Place for a friend? I’m not even a woman, and yet I know for a fact that I would enjoy talking about sex with Mary Kay Place over a bottle of wine. “Hey, Mary Kay Place, my close personal friend,” I’d say, “men are slobs, aren’t they?” And Mary Kay Place would say, “They sure are! This pinot grigio rocks. Let’s get some ice cream, change into our flannel pajamas, and binge-watch Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.”
That would be fun. Don’t try to deny it.
There are two other gal pals, one of whom I don’t recognize and the other of whom is Rita Wilson, who comes on a little strong and isn’t as non-threatening as Mary Kay Place is. We might not ask Rita Wilson to stay up and watch Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman with us, though it might be fun to give her a little more wine and then watch Sleepless in Seattle, just to hear what she has to say about that tramp, Meg Ryan. Come on, Rita. Have another glass and tell us how you really feel.
Eventually Meyers gets around to addressing her principal theme, the Sexual Appeal of the Mature Woman — but that’s not where the pornography comes in. Sure, Meryl Streep plays the middle-aged mother of three children who is sought after by two men, one of whom happens to be her ex-husband. (It’s a sign of how far these actors have journeyed that, in this movie, Alec Baldwin is the funny one and Steve Martin is the serious one.) But the Meryl-Is-Sexy part of the movie is pretty realistic. Almost a documentary.
Meryl Streep complains a few times about how awful she looks, now that she’s middle-aged and has had three children, but she’s just fishing for compliments because she looks fabulous and everybody knows it. Baldwin and Martin crave her, but they don’t maul her, because this is a romantic comedy. Baldwin goes in for the side of her neck and the shoulders — you remember those, don’t you, from Sophie’s Choice and The French Lieutenant’s Woman? Of course you do. And they’re still gorgeous. They deserve their own Lifetime Achievement awards. One apiece. There are probably plastic surgeons in Hollywood right now, working hard to make other women’s necks and shoulders look as good as Meryl Streep’s neck and shoulders look.
Meyers doesn’t show us any scenes in which Baldwin or Martin gives Streep a foot massage, but you can be pretty sure they’re in there somewhere, maybe in the DVD extras, because foot massages, like sensual shoulder-kissing and Mary Kay Place and a reliably constant supply of wine, are things that women want more of.
Also, and most importantly, both Baldwin and Martin actually talk to Meryl Streep, and Martin actually listens to her, and as I can attest from my own personal experience, this is something that women definitely want more of. Martin’s character likes French movies, which we find out because he listens when Meryl Streep tells him she used to live in Paris, so he invites her to a French film festival, even though presumably that means reading subtitles and staying awake or at least not snoring like a cement mixer through the whole movie — and at this point I’m thinking, “Yo, Nancy Meyers, are you sure this Steve Martin character is straight?” For a lot of straight men, just watching this movie would be a challenge.
Still, in a culture that so often addresses what men want — comic book characters, gun violence, car chases, explosions, women as objects who are under 35 and who don’t care whether you remember their birthdays — it’s nice to see a movie that caters to what women want, for a change. And again, this isn’t the pornographic part.
No, the pornography is in the kitchen.
You see, Meryl Streep — or Nancy Meyers, or both of them — is a kitchen size queen.
When we first see Meryl Streep’s kitchen, she’s taking stock of her suddenly Empty Nest, after her three air-brushed, genetically engineered, fully sanitized J. Crew adult children leave home. The kitchen is very, very beautiful, and it is as if Meryl Streep steps into a magazine. It’s like the way she stepped into Travel + Leisure in Out of Africa, only here the magazine is Architectural Digest, which, as we know, is to kitchens what Playboy is to naked ladies. A scientifically calibrated amount of sunlight fills the spacious room, bedecked with just enough cute personal items to let you know that human beings sometimes venture into this kitchen. There’s music playing, so you can’t quite hear the kitchen screaming “Home! Warmth! Fulfillment!” at the top of its lungs.
However, as we will soon discover, this is not “the kitchen of my dreams,” which Meryl Streep has wanted for ten years. Reflect on that. Ten years. For ten years she has had to suffer with this kitchen, instead of reveling in the kitchen of her dreams. Ten years. With this kitchen.
As we gaze upon this kitchen, we also see at least one of every cooking utensil known. Meryl Streep probably owns the gadget I just saw at Williams-Sonoma the other day, which is specifically and exclusively designed to cut up cauliflower, because obviously paring knives are not good enough for serious cooks, even if you live in Manhattan and barely have storage space for a paring knife, much less a paring knife and a cauliflower gadget. If you were a serious cook, you would find the space and you would own that gadget. Maybe several of them, because who can ever cut enough cauliflower, and who can be bothered to follow methodically the helical growth of the florets with a cheap-ass pedestrian paring knife that came from goddam Target?
Meryl Streep’s character, we later discover, owns a bakery-restaurant-store sort of establishment, and she can tell at a glance when there’s too much powdered sugar on the pastry, so she is a serious cook.
But she is also committed to family, which is why the island-slash-table in her eat-in kitchen is as big as a king-size bed. Her three children and her future son-in-law can glide as one from the J. Crew catalogue to gather around that table to share the gourmet-yet-cozy meal that Meryl Streep has lovingly prepared for them. Seriously, it probably takes Meryl Streep all afternoon just to set that table. She has to do yoga and weight training and stretching exercises just to pass around the wine. This may explain why her shoulders look so great.
Now, supposedly we’re in Santa Barbara, which isn’t Manhattan, so I’m not exactly startled by the fact that Meryl Streep’s kitchen is the size of my entire apartment. I mean, when your immaculately landscaped yard is the size of Central Park, that’s what you do, you have a big kitchen. No, the surprise is that Meryl Streep’s big kitchen isn’t big enough. I have been in Williams-Sonoma stores that were smaller than Meryl Streep’s kitchen. But it will not do.
We are in a bakery-restaurant-store slightly larger than a factory warehouse, but we should sit as close as possible, because I find you sexually desirable, you erotically empowered middle-aged woman, you.
Enter Steve Martin as the architect who designs the kitchen of her dreams. Before designing that kitchen, he actually reads her e-mails on the subject. Reading e-mails probably isn’t as sexy as listening, but it shows how sensitive Steve Martin is. He respects her dreams. He wants to know all about them. Once he fully understands her dreams, he will fulfill them. That is what sensitive men do.
Automatically, Meryl Streep knows that if she e-mails Steve Martin an invitation to Rita Wilson’s dinner party next Tuesday, Steve Martin is not the kind of man who is going to say, “Oh, I never saw that. I will be going out with the guys instead. Don’t wait up.” No, no, Steve Martin will say, “Oh, I read that as soon as you sent it. I already marked the date on my calendar. And I just bought a new blazer to wear that night, so that Rita Wilson will be reminded that I’m not one of the slobs like her husband, and besides, I always do my utmost to look good for you, particularly when it is, as Tuesday will be, precisely 147 days to your birthday. Shall I pour you some wine and rub your feet now?”
Yes, Meryl Streep knows exactly what kind of man Steve Martin is. And that’s how we know she isn’t going to end up with Alec Baldwin. Alec Baldwin spends most of his time showing us how much he wants incredible sex with the middle-aged mother of his children, but Meryl Streep isn’t going to settle for incredible sex with the father of her children. No. That is not good enough.
Neither is that kitchen.
I have included several pictures of Meryl Streep’s puny, limp, pathetic, unsatisfying kitchen, because really, there are no words.
That kitchen isn’t even the only kitchen Meryl Streep has at her disposal. Later in the movie, she takes Steve Martin to her bakery-restaurant-store, which is the size of a Wal-Mart, and sadly Nancy Meyers leaves out the part where they have to use a golf cart to get around. However, this may be where Nancy Meyers got the idea to have Anne Hathaway use a bicycle to get around her office in The Intern. (How zany, yet how practical!)
Once again Meryl Streep reminds us that she is a serious cook, by whipping up a spur-of-the-moment batch of chocolate croissants, even though it’s the middle of the night. (How madcap!) And Steve Martin again demonstrates his exceptional sensitivity by helping her in the kitchen — I repeat, helping her in the kitchen! We are not supposed to notice that Steve Martin bruises the dough, though he does, and consequently it will not flake properly when baked, and Nancy Meyers will have to throw it out after she’s finished the take. However, this is not a big deal, because this is Hollywood and wasting dough is routine there.
Also, you can tell we’re not supposed to notice, because obviously Meryl Streep would never favor a man who bruises her pâte feuilletée.
We see yet again that Meryl Streep is a serious cook because she has her very own jardin potager the size of a soccer field, and of course she has a rumpled-yet-adorable straw hat to wear while she is picking picture-perfect tomatoes that are all exactly the same size, shape, and color, and that effortlessly line up in orderly rows when she places them in her basket, while you wonder whether that just happened by chance, or is Meryl Streep really a witch after all, or did Nancy Meyers hire a tomato wrangler for this movie?
And yet we know that Meryl Streep is an ordinary woman, an Everywoman, with whom we can identify and to whom we can relate, because her name is Jane — just plain Jane — and doesn’t every woman have a jardin potager the size of Nebraska and a light-filled kitchen the size of a shopping mall stocked with every item in the entire Williams-Sonoma catalogue and probably Pottery Barn, too, and an impeccably dressed ex-husband with great hair who is literally fainting from the desire to kiss her shoulders and (probably) rub her feet, and who (mostly) listens to her when she talks and who can’t stop praising her incredible sexual appeal, even when she is picking tomatoes in her jardin potager?
And yes, because she is a serious cook and used to live in France, she calls it a “jardin potager,” not a “kitchen garden.”
But Meryl Streep wants more, she deserves more, so she has to find another man who will kiss her shoulders and rub her feet and build her a kitchen the size of Alaska and listen to her when she talks, and who even reads her e-mails.
Because that kitchen is not big enough to satisfy a serious cook like Meryl Streep. Women should never have to settle, and what woman would settle for a kitchen like that? That kitchen is not the kitchen of Meryl Streep’s dreams. Women should fulfill their dreams and own their own businesses and have incredible sex and whip up chocolate croissants in the middle of the night and drink wine whenever they damn feel like it. Women should not only fulfill their own dreams, they should also fulfill Meryl Streep’s dreams, or hire Steve Martin to fulfill Meryl Streep’s dreams, and what woman would dream about a kitchen like that, anyway? Meryl Streep certainly would not dream about a kitchen that is merely spacious, inviting, well-appointed, and flawless.
Sadly, Nancy Meyers seems to have omitted the scene where Meryl Streep moans, “Build that kitchen! Build it! Build it bigger! Bigger! Bigger! Yes! Yes! Yes!”
Maybe that scene, like the foot massage, is in the DVD extras. For mature audiences only.
I need more wine.
SPECIAL ADVISORY: If you watch this movie, do not play the drinking game where you take a drink every time the actors take a drink. Trust me on this one. You may, however, try taking a drink in every scene where no wine is involved.