It’s Complicated (2009)

It’s very easy for critics to be sniffy about the oeuvre of Nancy Meyers: gentle, sometimes sentimental, romantic comedies about people later in life dealing with messy relationships and families. But I don’t know, I think her films have more going on than her detractors might allow. After all, it takes some skill to make actors like Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin into blandly appealing, even likeable leads when so much of their screen personae are based around being acerbic, dominating alpha males — to such an extent in fact, that star Meryl Streep (as divorcee Jane) almost gets the film stolen from her by this duo of her ex-husband Jake (Baldwin) and new flame, architect Adam (Martin). Sure it’s all very comfortable (and white) middle-class suburbia, people living in just-so houses doing delightful things like baking and architecture, but that’s these characters’ lives and it’s all put across expertly by Meyers and her actors. Within this world of existing jobs and familial obligations, the central relationship entanglement in which Jane finds herself almost doesn’t register, but it’s handled sensibly, in a mature way that most comedies can’t manage (especially those flirting with slapstick, as this does at times). It’s a pity that Lake Bell, a woman with plenty of comic talents both in front of and behind the camera, has such a thankless role as Jake’s vain new wife Agness, but that aside this is a likeable, warm-hearted film that works well when one is laying up ill on a sofa.

It's Complicated film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Nancy Meyers; Cinematographer John Toll; Starring Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin, Steve Martin, John Krasinski, Lake Bell; Length 120 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Thursday 29 October 2015.

Man Up (2015)

In some ways this is a very familiar film, and yet even Richard Curtis can’t always seem to get it right, so it’s nice to see an example which works — a film both consistently funny, and not patronisingly dishonest about its characters or the contours of their romance (at least, for the most part). This, however, is not an assessment I had taken from the trailer, in which Simon Pegg’s Jack just seems like a massive dick to his mistaken-blind date and putative love interest Nancy (played by American comic actor Lake Bell). What you discover on actually watching the film is that, yes, he does act that way, but it’s contextualised within a sort of mid-life crisis he’s going through. The film (and Nancy) crucially doesn’t let him get away with his childish acting out, and his character ends up expressing some self-awareness and regret about his shallowness — too often, romcoms seem to excuse these kinds of blatant character defects as charming quirks, to be accepted in time and through love. I mean, you still have to accept that this is a film that follows a well-worn mould of heteronormativity, about people who are relationship-obsessed, but within that context it’s all very charming. Lake Bell convinces with her accent and is a likeable lead, and even the harsher edges of Rory Kinnear’s deranged stalker character are almost neutered through the sheer force of the film’s comedy. It’s all put together with straightforward craft, even if some of the transitions ring my London geography alarm bells (the exit to the Bloomsbury Bowling Lanes is in… Soho?), but it’s the writing and performances that carry it. Though there’s always one thing I never understand about this genre of films, which is how the protagonists’ friends are always such ridiculous twits; I remain glad that I’ve never been to any parties like the one which opens the film.

Man Up film poster CREDITS
Director Ben Palmer; Writer Tess Morris; Cinematographer Andrew Dunn; Starring Lake Bell, Simon Pegg, Rory Kinnear; Length 88 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Wednesday 10 June 2015.

In a World… (2013)

So I’m hardly likely to be the only person watching this film who was not previously familiar with the world of trailer voiceover artists. You know, the ones who canonically start their spiel with stuff along the lines of “In a world of sadness, their love was the only thing that held things together” or whatever — you know the drill, just think deep booming voice. What writer/director/star Lake Bell has done is take this world and question its cosy assumptions, most notably about gender (when was the last trailer you saw voiced by a woman). This is the real world of the film, and it provides the backbone for what is it turns out a rather wonderful, affectionate comedy.

The credits sequence, which mimics the blurry VHS aesthetic, does a quick overview of the voiceover world, moving swiftly from the very real, revered and late Don LaFontaine (the man who coined the title phrase) to his successors, the characters who provide the background to this film: Sam Soto (Fred Melamed) and the young upstart whom Sam is grooming as his heir, Gustav Warner. It’s a cosy old boys’ network where jobs are traded amongst a very small and very male coterie of voice talent. This is where Soto’s daughter Carol comes in (the director Lake Bell), who is working initially as a voice coach but who wants to do what her dad does. He doesn’t support her, doesn’t think she can succeed, and is anyway desperately vain, having just moved his much younger girlfriend in, displacing Carol, who goes to stay on her sister Dani’s couch.

In many ways it’s a family drama, not only because the central characters are all part of the same family, but because the voiceover world is such an insular one. Dani (Michaela Watkins) are her husband Moe (Rob Corddry) are having marital problems, while Carol likes shy studio engineer Louis (Demetri Martin), though allows herself to be seduced by the supremely confident Gustav. He is only interested in her as a conquest, and quickly becomes agitated when he learns she is a rival. It’s this angle that is the most interesting, for you get the sense that having a woman rival is incomprehensible to these men, who are so certain that it cannot happen in their profession. Thus does voiceover artist surprisingly become one of the last remaining battlegrounds for women’s equality.

None of this would matter much, though, if it weren’t for the likeable performances by all the principal characters, especially Lake Bell as the struggling voice coach who wants more than her profession allows (we see her helping Eva Longoria master a cockney accent at the start, and she has an obsession with recording exotic accents at her sister’s hotel to aid her work). In the recording studio, Martin has a floppy-haired neurotic charm, ably assisted by the deadpan Tig Notaro and the ever-watchable Nick Offerman (without his Ron Swanson moustache, but still as straight-talking as ever).

For all that it doesn’t pull punches about the inherent sexism in the industry — and there are some pretty upfront admissions of such — it doesn’t hurt that no one in the film is really nasty, though Gustav is certainly self-involved to a disturbing degree. As a father, Sam is basically decent, and writer/director Bell isn’t interested in punishing or hurting her characters, even the ones who act badly. Carol may sleep with Gustav, but it’s not presented as something that defines or degrades either of them, though it’s equally clear they shouldn’t be together. It’s a comic world, after all, where everything sort of works out in the end.

In a World… is more than just being about an unusual facet of the film industry, though that gives it some extra interest. No, what it does really well is that brand of likeable character-driven comedy which has a positive message without getting preachy, and in which its characters all find themselves without hurting each other. And for that, I really like it.

Director/Writer Lake Bell; Cinematographer Seamus Tierney; Starring Lake Bell, Fred Melamed, Demetri Martin, Michaela Watkins, Rob Corddry; Length 93 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Fulham Road, London, Saturday 14 September 2013.