Monday, December 28, 2009

Why Does Rita Wilson Overact? It's Complicated

I saw It's Complicated yesterday. I laughed myself to tears and enjoyed every minute of it. The setting, dialogue, familial structure, social milieu -- they all had a ring of truth and familiarity about them that made seeing into the emotional complexity of the story a more profound experience than I had expected from what was billed as a light romantic comedy. I'm still thinking about feelings that came up for me while watching this movie, but I'll write about those another time.

Today I have a question that truly perplexed me: why does Rita Wilson overact?

In this movie, she plays one of Jane's (Meryl Streep's character) three friends, with Mary Kay Place and Alexandra Wentworth. They represent us in the movie: it is to the three of them that Jane confesses to having begun an adulterous relationship with her ex-husband Jake (Alec Baldwin). Two of the three, Mary Kay and Alexandra, respond with subtlety. They both appear a little surprised, a little confused, even a little incredulous; they want to know more about the situation and all the details that led up to such a possibility's even having presented itself. They want to know how Jane feels about it, what she's going to do next. They hold her up with their good will. Yes, of course they have lives of their own. But right now those lives are offstage. This conversation is about Jane.

These are Jane's friends. They know her. We sense that they have witnessed her growth during the past ten post-divorce years, and while they are curious about what is going on between Jane and Jake, they also appear concerned about her, protective of her, unwilling to stand by and watch if she is at the point of sliding backwards into something that hurt her terribly in the past. You get the feeling that if Jane goes off track too much, these women will support her and help her find her way back.

Rita Wilson is another story altogether. Her character gets the news at the same time as the other two women. Instead of trying to take it in the way they do, however, she fairly bounds up from where she is seated on the sofa and exudes a glee for details that to me demonstrate more interest in salacious considerations than the heartfelt concern the other two women demonstrate for their friend's well-being. This is not friendly enthusiasm. It's bad acting.

That's not all. Rita has a few more lines. She delivers each with the fervor of a chorus line dancer determined to stand out from the crowd, who, in placing her personal goals over the success of the group, ruins everything. It's as if a member of the Greek Chorus in a classical play were to step out toward the audience and mug a particularly pained response to lines being delivered by the main character. What???

I asked myself why I was so annoyed by Rita Wilson's performance. First, I thought, maybe no one has the courage to criticize her acting; she wields power as a producer, and her husband (Tom Hanks) is a powerful player in town. Second, it is probably safe to say, simply, that if she knew any better, she'd be a better actress. But still, there was something nagging at the back of my mind that couldn't be explained by Hollywood. This morning when I awoke I realized what it was.

Rita Wilson's performance annoyed me because she reminded me of the person who makes your problems all about her. You break your leg: she tells you about the time she broke her leg. You get a divorce: she compares every step with what she went through during hers. Your daughter is getting married: she tells you about all the details involved in planning her daughter's wedding.

You feel as if your role with a person like this is Topic Chooser.

You leave such a conversation, if that's what it is, feeling slightly less well than you did before. You also feel the nonverbal message was It's no big deal; get over it. Lots of times, it may well really be no big deal, but that doesn't mean you didn't want to talk about it, explore it, just to be certain it was, in fact, just as you suspected, no big deal. You don't bring up something personal just to have someone else short circuit your process.

And you certainly don't bring it up as an oratorial platform for her.

I don't know what you do with someone like Rita Wilson if you're directing the movie. I do know, however, what I do in my personal life when I encounter someone like her; or, more accurately, I know what I don't do.

I don't invite her over for a glass of wine when I'm seeking compassion and feedback from friends during a transition in my life.

For times like that, only the best friends will do.

Photograph: Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwin in It's Complicated, courtesy of Universal Pictures

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