10) The Road (2009) Dir: John Hillcoat Date Released: November 2009 Date Seen: January 10, 2010 Rating: 2.75/5
11) It's Complicated (2009) Dir: Nancy Meyers Date Released: December 2009 Date Seen: January 11, 2010 Rating: 2.75/5
Tonally, there aren't two more disparate films amongst last year's crop of awards season titles than The Road, John Hillcoat's adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's much-lauded novel and It's Complicated, the latest fizzy romantic comedy about an older woman's libido from writer/director Nancy Meyers. But in a strange way, they could not be more alike. The Road and It's Complicated are "His and Hers" nightmare-fantasies. They both present their protagonists, both older parents, with overwhelming brave new worlds that are secretly their masochistic dreams come true. The Road's "Man" (Viggo Mortensen) might as well be called "Father," as he, like so many other protagonists in McCarthy's novels, sees the world through droopy grand-fatherly eyelids hatcheted by wrinkles and corneas blurred by glaucoma. Man fears so much for the safety of his child that he imagines a world where the rape and cannibalization of his son, "Boy" (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is inevitable. On the opposite end of the hormonal spectrum is It's Complicated's Jane (Meryl Streep), an amiably burnt-out divorcee now tending to her long-neglected post-menopausal sex drive after the youngest of her three children has graduated from college. Along the way, she's wooed by her pot-bellied ex Jake (Alec Baldwin) and her fey architect friend Adam (Steve Martin). Man and Jane collectively groan and grit their teeth a lot but secretly, they relish the stress of their new lives at the end of world. They get to externalize their egos and drain their respective worlds of all moral complexities because the emotional apocalypse has come to town and they need to do their living now while the living's good. Mame Dennis would have been proud but even that great fictitious armchair bohemian would hasten to call either neuroses-prone parent's scenario especially complicated.
The Road warrants more attention than It's Complicated not because it's a better film but because it takes itself more seriously. Screenwriter Joe Penhall's adaptation of McCarthy's novel is insightful in that it sheds light on the seductive central fallacies at the heart of McCarthy's fiction. In The Road, we see Man's world through his eyes before we're allowed a pseudo-objective look around. Through two self-sufficient, narratively ungrounded flashback sequences and one scene of inner monologue, we learn of Man's deep-seated paternal inadequacy. He can't provide food or shelter for his child, not when his wife hightails it out of their marriage because she insists that both she and their son will be raped, murdered and/or eaten by whatever scavenging survivors remain. Man's terror is so great that it becomes elemental in nature: it's naturalized in the landscape surrounding, having sprung from his mind and firmly taken root in the no longer good earth. The terrain he and Boy trudge through is desiccated beyond credible belief because Man and his wife "Woman" (Charlize Theron) know it's a wasteland ("When you dream about bad things happening, you know you're still alive, that you're still fighting."). And so it is.
Man accordingly treats the world like an ever-escalating worst case scenario, one whose inevitable conclusion he pridefully fights against every step of the way. In his hard-hearted struggle to reach the West Coast, he shields his son by reducing the world to "Us" and "Them," "Good guys" and "Bad," making anybody the eensiest bit grey more black than white. Somebody is following them, an unknown assailant fires on them with a bow and arrow without any warning, a fellow survivor steals their supplies while they sleep and gun-toting scavengers (One of whom even wears a balaclava!) are eyeing their lemon drink. Conversely, in Man's world, good things come in only one color: Oasis Pearl. The discovery of a long-forgotten but still somehow carbonated can of cola or of a completely abandoned house on a hill chockfull of canned goods are the kind of miraculous moments of Survivalist joy that Man lives for. When he gives Boy these little treats that would otherwise be taken for granted in, say, Meyers's materialistic world, he knows his son can actually appreciate them. Man wants to keep his Boy pure in every way possible because, as he tells us early on the in the film, Boy is his only proof that God ever existed.
Penhall acknowledges that there's something fundamentally wrong with Man's extremist mentality and the film's ending mildly rebukes the violent conclusion its grizzled protagonist knows is just around the corner by never letting it come. After Man conveniently collapses somewhere on the coast, though he's never exhibited signs of debilitating fatigue or illness before then (It's an Allegorical Illness, silly!), Boy finally meets the people that have been following them and they adopt him. These people have children of their own so when their patriarch tells the boy that he has to take it on faith that they can be trusted, we know that Boy can. But that ending comes too little too late. Almost every scene right up until that crucial reversal of fortune paints Man's actions as grimly heroic at best or darkly romantic at worst. You can tell which way the filmmakers wants your heart-strings to be plucked when Boy says goodbye to his "papa" and we're meant to cry with him as weepy instrumental music is laid over the scene with the delicacy of a steamroller over wet cement. Hillcoat's film is seductively bleak but I really have no use for a film that champions a faux-archetypal macho that makes Clint Eastwood's onscreen persona look like a pussy.
It's Complicated is no less slight though slightly more entertaining for all its pains (Nictate was right: Meryl's smile really does make even the worst tripe go down more smoothly). Jane's quest for a new lover is one she continually frets over but its never more anxious for her than pealing Jake, the more over-excited of her two lapdogs, from her calves or coquettishly applying romantic peer pressure (ie: flirting) to Steve so they can share a joint, the first one either one has had in 27 years (OMG! They're, like, old and uptight and stuff!). Compared to the salted-earth countryside of Man's world, Jane's life is typified by extravagant abundance. To be happy, she just has to choose between idealized, fawning, overly effeminate and very, ahem, mature lovers (Baldwin in particular is often wearing more make-up than Streep, making for a very perplexing androgynous look, especially considering how sultry his voice normally sounds). Jane doesn't want passion: she wants to enjoy the sensual things in life, from home-baked pies and good vino with the gals to bitchin' doobies with her new guy pal. She learns she doesn't need to sacrifice anything or pick anyone to get those things and so she doesn't. Just like Man, she can have her hot chocolate croissant and eat it, too. So what?