by Meredith O’Brien
The weekend after Christmas, my best friend from college – who’s been married nearly as long as I have and who also has three kids around the same ages as my trio – went to see It’s Complicated , the comedy starring the Golden Globe-nominated  Meryl Streep, and which snagged two other nominations for best comedy and best screenplay.
Seeing that my friend and I are in our late thirties and early forties, respectively, and are smack dab in the middle of the messy, wonderfully insane work of raising kids, I thought it would be interesting for us to see a depiction of Streep’s Jane Adler, as a late fiftysomething mother of grown children whose career as the owner of a bakery/restaurant is blossoming after having been divorced for 10 years following the break-up of her 19-year marriage, obliterated in the wake of her husband’s affair with a much-younger woman.
And, as you may have already gathered from the ubiquitous movie trailers, Streep’s ex-husband Jake Adler (played by Alec Baldwin) has decided that his marriage to said younger woman Agness (the same woman who broke up his first marriage) -- who’s insisting that Jake accompany her to the infertility clinic to have another baby, in addition to her 5-year-old by another man -- isn’t working out as Jake planned. Jane and Jake commence an affair, which is delicious revenge for Jane who’s now seen as the smoldering, confident sexy one while her ex’s wife (played by Lake Bell) is now the one who’s seen as the nagging spouse who’s always calling him on the phone and burdening the put-upon husband with unglamorous domestic duties.
On the one hand, I delighted in seeing the beautiful sixtysomething Streep starring as the desirable, smart, fun-loving Jane who’s fought over by both Jake and her architect who wants to date her (played by Steve Martin). In the end, Jane winds up being the empowered one. Fantastic.
But as my gal pal and I left the theater, we had different responses to the film, aside from our wild admiration for Streep and Baldwin. My friend found it interesting – dare I say, inspiring -- to see how, now that Jane’s three children are all out of the house, she’s flourishing. She’s having her house expanded to add her dream kitchen and a new bedroom which will provide her with a view of the ocean, courtesy of the success of her business. The bakery/café she owns and runs is gorgeous and packed with customers, apparently doing as well as Jane in her post-divorce existence. Now that Jane and Jake’s kids are grown, she got her life back. All of these are good things, things to look forward to, the notion that there’s a very full life to be had after the kids leave the nest.
But then there was another, more curious aspect of It’s Complicated that struck me as my friend and I continued discussing the film: Streep’s Jane had been abandoned by her husband Jake when she was doing the heavy-lifting of rearing their children. Jake left her for a nubile woman who was young and whose life was, at the time, uncomplicated by childrearing. Yet when that same woman -- to whom Jake is now married – became a mom raising a 5-year-old and wanted to try to have a baby through infertility treatments, Jake was no longer all that into her. In fact, the narcissistic Jake seeks sexual refuge from a kid-centric world in the arms of his ex-wife who’s just launched their last child into adulthood and has time for some mischievous fun.
Consider this scene: Jake’s second wife Agness was pecking away on her laptop computer, sitting on her tousled bed while wearing black socks, black boy shorts and a gray T-shirt. Agness removed her shirt to reveal a black bra and her fiercely toned body (she was still wearing her black socks though), reclined in the bed and told the distinctly untoned Jake that she was ovulating and clearly expected her husband to immediately attempt to get her pregnant. From Jake’s perspective, Agness couldn’t have looked more unattractive. Drunk sex with his ex-wife Jane the night before their youngest son graduates from college, by contrast, “was smokin’ hot.”
Was I reading too much into the situation, that moms who are working to raise children are perceived as unsexy, grating and naggy when they’re in the trenches of doing said childrearing? The women they are before they become mothers, and who they become after their kids are grown and out of the house, those are the women who well paid (and apparently well fed) men desire? This can’t be the message that screenwriter Nancy Meyers – who produced and wrote the script for the 1987 working mother-centric film Baby Boom starring Diane Keaton – meant to send, can it?
Don’t get me wrong, I love the fact that Streep’s fiftysomething empty-nester Jane is carrying this film, in a sexy role at the center of a love triangle. In online notes  about the film, Streep is quoted as saying that It’s Complicated is respectful to “forgotten women: women who don’t see their lives played out the way they do in this film. There are no movies in which a woman, 10 years happily divorced, reignites a relationship with her ex. This is not a common occurrence in movies . . . or in life.”
That’s fabulous, something to applaud, certainly. I too want to see women featured in films as having full lives, as full as the lives of the male characters in films, no matter their ages or parental/marital status. At the same time, however, characterizing the women who are in the midst of childrearing as being pain-in-the-neck, cold shower nudges who wear black socks to bed (while their overweight older husbands who don’t do much parenting flit from one woman’s bed to another in an attempt to escape them), that’s not so fabulous. Do we really need to render one class of women unattractive in order to lift up another?