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12.20.09

Nancy Meyers' Decorator Porn

In It’s Complicated, Meryl Streep’s kitchen is bigger than most people’s apartments. Nicole LaPorte weighs in on the consumerist cornucopia of Nancy Meyers’ latest movie.

A friend and screenwriter who was new to the movie business once came back from a meeting at a studio and said that she’d been told that her script needed to be more “aspirational.” She asked me what that meant.

I said something in the way of an explanation, but what I should have told her was: Go see a Nancy Meyers movie. Because that is surely what begat the term. Or, if not, then at least where it has been the most deliriously exploited.

When the credits rolled, my brother, whom I’d brought as a plus-one, and who is a lawyer with his own rather comfortable home, said: “That house!” And then confessed to having spent much of the movie renovating his kitchen—which suddenly felt ill-designed and much too small—in his head.

In films like What Women Want, Something’s Gotta Give, and The Holiday, Meyers creates worlds that are so upwardly, yes, aspiring, and beautifully designed—from Diane Keaton’s lush, rambling, Hamptons spread in Something’s Gotta Give to Cameron Diaz’s stunning Beverly Hills palazzo in The Holiday—that there is no way to watch her films, particularly during a hideous and ongoing recession, without wanting to possess every last silk settee and gleaming, industrial-sized cappuccino maker that flashes before your eyes. And then wanting to kill yourself because that’s so not in the cards. Real life simply doesn’t get as good, or good-looking, as a Nancy Meyers movie.

Hollywood, of course, traffics in the business of making reality appear better than it actually is—of visual, often unbelievable, escapes that allow us to revel in for a good hour-and-a-half in Life As We Do Not Know It. But the sumptuous details in Meyers’ films—the gazillion-thread-count sheets; the Park Regent suites; the glintingly new Porsches (none of which seem solely to be there because of product-placement deals)—are so unrelentingly omnipresent in every, single frame that they actually become distracting. During a screening of It’s Complicated, Meyers’ latest installment of decorator porn, I became so consumed with the outlandish dimensions of Meryl Streep’s (a.k.a. Jane, the film’s protagonist) Santa Barbara kitchen and all of its Martha Stewart accoutrements—cake plates with perfectly frosted cakes on them; vases stuffed with plump basil—that I missed whole sequences of dialogue.

Apparently, I wasn’t alone. When the credits rolled, my brother, whom I’d brought as a plus-one, and who is a lawyer with his own rather comfortable home, said: “That house!” And then confessed to having spent much of the movie renovating his kitchen—which suddenly felt ill-designed and much too small—in his head.

He made both of us feel better when he said he’d noticed a flaw in the production design: Jane’s gigantic, stainless-steel Frigidaire had a huge dent.

Flaws, though, are not what Meyers is about, at least not on the surface. In It’s Complicated, Jane is a middle-aged divorcée who runs a Parisian-style bakery and who lives on a sprawling estate that she is in the process of making even more sprawling with the help of nerdy architect and wannabe suitor, Adam (Steve Martin). Her three grown children look like the elder von Trapp kids from The Sound of Music—there’s even a scene where, seeking comfort, they all jump in a bed together and pull up the covers. The bakery is a bustling hit. The only “problem” is that Jane’s ex-husband (Alec Baldwin), a rich lawyer— who has his own to-die-for home with his hot, much younger, new wife—wants to sleep with her. (In Meyers’ films, difficulties tend to arise, and get solved in, the sack.)

If movies are, in fact, first and foremost about escape, then Meyers succeeds better than anyone else. Watching It’s Complicated, I was transported not just to one of the most high-priced fiefdoms in America (Santa Barbara, which in the film looks more like Tuscany), but back in time—to, say, 1994. A period when bobos truly were in paradise: there was no recession, Wall Street was still standing proudly, and the term “cutting back” was, rather than a badge of honor, déclassé. Back when Baby Boomers could be smug and get away with it, and when smiling non-stop for 118 minutes didn’t seem in any way creepy. (One of the oddest sights in It’s Complicated is The Office’s normally adorably apathetic John Krasinski grinning like a hyena—the whole time.)

The film presents an anachronistically surreal world of plenty. Jane’s twenty-something daughter Lauren (Caitlin Fitzgerald) has a house as Architectural Digest-approved as her mother’s, even though it is not clear what she does for a living. As she prepares for her wedding, meeting with a planner in the foyer of a five-star hotel, it’s obvious no one’s thinking cash bar. The only nod to conservation is that one daughter drives a Prius.

In a New York Times Magazine cover story by Daphne Merkin, Meyers addresses what Merkin calls her “‘gracious home’ aesthetic” by saying: “The fact that there is nice fabric on the chairs is fun. It’s appealing. It softens the message.”

(She admits she’s been called on it as far back as Father of the Bride, when Steve Martin said, upon seeing the set’s grand, white Colonial: “This is an awfully fancy home you’re asking people to identify with.”)

If Meyers can’t quite articulate what she’s up to, Merkin helps her out, writing that the director’s vision is grounded in the idea that “your character is attested to by the quality of your bed linens and where good taste stands not only for itself but for all that it excludes in the way of fast cars, moral turpitude, kinky eroticism and political scandal.”

It’s hard to knock a female writer-director who’s not only making big, commercial movies that people actually go see, but has the guts to make them about the unsexy travails of middle-age. It’s no secret that the pool of such filmmakers is frighteningly small. And, underneath all the cloying, consumerist perfection, which we are not ever allowed to miss (at one point Jane flat-out asks Adam what kind of car he’s driving—it’s an Audi), Meyers’ characters come with believable scratches and dents. They, and what they say, ring true, and for the most part are very funny (though Alec Baldwin saying “OMG” could, please, go). If only Meyers would extend her knowingness about the warts and all way that people really live to the worlds they really live in, she might find herself with more compelling fodder, and an audience that could actually pay attention to the drama, not just the dressing. (It’s this quality that seems to be driving interest in Up in the Air, a dramedy that deals with the recession.) However aspirational we are as viewers, we also want to be told something about ourselves and how we live, not just dream.

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Nicole LaPorte is a West Coast reporter for The Daily Beast. A former film reporter for Variety, she has also written for The New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times Magazine, The New York Times, The New York Observer, and W.