Forget the accents. Forget the anguish, the steely resolve, the iambic pentameter. All hail Meryl Streep for what she is best at — comedy. She spins screenplay straw into movie gold, turning yet another fungible Nancy Meyers saga about a beautiful and accomplished middle-aged woman triumphing over a womanizing man into a miracle of warmth, heart, and wisdom just from the power of sheer acting genius and being the truly and deeply glorious person that she is.
Meyers does have a talent for, in the words of one of her movie titles “What Women Want.” She knows that there is an eager audience for a story about a middle-aged woman who is so universally adored that even her ex-husband, the hound who left her for a gorgeous young woman (cue the slo-mo stroll in the midriff-revealing sarong) can’t get enough of her and admits that he was crazy to let her go. What could be more satisfying than that?
One of the wisest and most entertaining books ever written about movies is Stanley Cavell’s Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage, where he discusses the power of movie romances that bring estranged couples back together. As beguiling as it is to think of the freshness of first falling in love and the pleasures of learning everything about one another, there is something even more deeply satisfying about the idea of falling in love with someone with whom there are no illusions, and especially having that someone fall in love with you. Anyone can fall in love with what we think we know or with someone we’ve seen at his or her best. But when it’s someone we’ve seen at his or her worst; that’s got to be love for sure.
Or, it can be something satisfying in a different way — payback.
Streep plays Jane (as in plain?), divorced for ten years from Jake (Alec Baldwin, perfecting the art of the appealing but infuriating male) finds herself in bed with him following a tipsy dinner when they are in New York together for their son’s graduation. She can’t resist the chance to feel pursued, validated, desired. The spark they once had is still there. And she would be inhuman if she did not feel a little triumphant about his preferring her to his beautiful young wife.
But there are (grown-up) children to consider. Being back together frees Jane to admit that she was not blameless in their break-up. It allows her to allow Jake to see her (literally) as she is, not as he remembers. And it opens her heart to some other possibilities, including the shy architect working on the addition to her house — including the dream kitchen to replace a kitchen already pretty darn dreamy.
Meyers, astutely profiled by Daphne Merkin in the New York Times Magazine, seems to be the only person in Hollywood today interested in and capable of connecting deeply to an audience of women who want more from a movie than frothy rom-coms or sex and shopping. Rare in the world of chick flicks, there are no trying-on-clothes montages or makeovers. Her movies feature capable women with good friends and loving families. The most preposterous fantasy in her films may not be the gorgeously decorated settings or even the swains in pursuit but the unequivocally devoted friends and especially children and even the prospective son-in-law — take another look at the way Jude Law’s little girls fall into instant love with Cameron Diaz in “The Holiday.” Like Jane in this film, who considers and then rejects the idea of a little cosmetic surgery, Meyers’ women start out fine with who they are and then get even more so.
Streep is what Meyers’ women want to be — supremely warm and nurturing (watch the way she keeps feeding everyone exquisite but apparently completely non-fattening meals), self-aware, and able with a little adorable struggle, to impose some boundaries in a very familiar way. She fills in what Meyers’s slightly calculating formula leaves out and makes this movie as guilty a pleasure as those chocolate croissants she whips up that make her date fall for her as we already have.