A Presentation of Seamlessness: A Roundtable Discussion On Nancy Meyers
by Hazel Cills
Leading up to her newest film in six years, The Intern, I wanted to have a serious conversation about Nancy Meyers. A consistent hit-maker and aesthete with a not-so-cult following, Meyers just has a way of writing women, dialogue, romances and friendship. After all those years of writing, directing, and producing movies, it still feels hard to accurately define her. Here, a group of fans attempt to do just that. — Hazel
Hazel Cills is a writer living in New York. Meryl Streep has never made her chocolate croissants 🙁
Emily Gaudette is a writer living in Boston. “She’s this high-strung, overamped, controlling, know-it-all neurotic…who’s incredibly cute and lovable.”
Tyler Coates is the Deputy Editor at Decider. Please do not tell his mom that he would accept an offer of adoption from Erica Barry or Jane Adler.
Lindsey Weber is a writer who recently changed coasts and immediately got into Eileen Fisher.
Durga Chew-Bose writes and lives in Brooklyn, and still aspires to becoming Frances McDormand’s character in Something’s Gotta Give.
Gabriella Paiella is a senior editor at Maxim. She can’t wait until her wardrobe consists entirely of soft muted fabrics.
Hazel: It feels only right to start this by asking what everyone’s favorite Nancy Meyers movie is and why. While Private Benjamin is one of my favorite movies ever, I think if I had to pick a favorite movie that is purely Nancy — written, directed, produced — it would be Something’s Gotta Give, my introduction to her. Keaton clinging to her white turtlenecks makes up for every bit of Nicholson’s sleaze and I also think it’s just a really great, funny movie about being a writer and making material out of your life (i.e. have you been Erica Barry?)
Tyler: I’m partial to The Parent Trap, which she co-wrote with her writing partner Charles Shyer and also marked her directorial debut. It’s purely nostalgia for me: I saw it when I was a teenager with my mom (who still considers it one of her favorite movies), it makes me remember a time when Lindsay Lohan possessed such promise, and Natasha Richardson!!! Also, Dennis Quaid is at his peak cuteness here. It’s the kind of kid’s movie that is so perfectly a movie for grown-ups in disguise, which is a very hard task to pull off. And this might be an unpopular opinion, but I think it’s a lot better than the original.
Emily: I’m with you, Hazel. Hands down it’s Something’s Gotta Give for me, because I have some kind of spiritual connection to Erica Barry and can only try to explain why. We both went to Bryn Mawr, we have similar snippy/affectionate relationships with our scientist sisters, and several times in my life I’ve had to say to someone who asked if I was crying, “oh, it’s just something that I’ve been doing lately.” I identify with the moment where the handsome doctor hands Erica tea and instead of trying to flirt, she jostles the cup around and burns herself.
Lindsey: The Parent Trap is wonderful — if only because it was when Lindsay Lohan last showed promise, but the truest Nancy Meyers written-directed-produced film (and also her best) has to be Something’s Gotta Give. It has all the wonderful and unique signatures that make a Nancy Meyers film a Nancy Meyers film: old people finding and enjoying themselves, a gorgeous kitchen; those wacky rom-com antics that tie almost too neatly. It’s so over-the-top rom-com. The movie ends in Paris, for godsakes! You can’t beat that for a romantic ending.
I’d also like to bring up 1987’s Baby Boom (written-produced, but not directed, by Meyers), which also stars Diane Keaton as a similarly career-obsessed, uptight woman, who finds herself with someone else’s baby and (duh!) has to raise it. Simple premise, but there is nothing more relatable to a 20-something Manhattanite than a movie about a woman who leaves town, buys a fixer-upper in Vermont, starts a gourmet baby food company, and falls in love with the town vet.
Durga: Tyler, I love The Parent Trap too. The “Introducing Lindsay Lohan” title card now feels iconic. That movie was filled with everything I envied growing up: sleepaway camp, long-lost sisters hatching a plan, a mother who was a fashion designer. It just felt so glamorous to me, and wholesome in the way movies can conjure wholesomeness by simply making Dennis Quaid the dad or shooting interiors in a Napa Valley house. Everything felt warm.
Even though What Women What is pretty terrible, I really enjoyed the scenes where the ad men and women are brainstorming. As a teen, I found those exciting to watch and imagined my own campaigns for each product. It was like a game. Workplace comedies are always fun because there’s so much to mine and watch develop in cubicle and office culture; it was an opportunity to romanticize having a job, to get paid for having good ideas. That said, it was also one of my first experiences witnessing a man steal a woman’s idea in a creative job environment. I remember feeling incredibly frustrated and having no idea the feeling would turn out to be incredibly prophetic.
Hazel: Gosh, I love this group love for The Parent Trap, which I sincerely did not think would get a lot of attention here. I don’t know why, I guess because it’s a children’s movie, but it IS so good. As a child my JCC summer camp was more Wet Hot American Summer than The Parent Trap, so the latter was a serious fantasy, especially when the sisters get stuck in the cabin (also didn’t have a sister growing up.) It’s also the reason I tried peanut butter on Oreos and have really considered more than once getting a friend to re-pierce my ears “Parent Trap style,” more because it felt like a secret and dangerous ritual than a quick solution to fix an un-pierced ear.
Gabriella: I never get tired of watching It’s Complicated. The first time I saw it, a group of middle-aged women sitting behind me had snuck flasks into the movie theater and were having the time of their lives, so that memory has always particularly endeared me to it. It’s hilarious — the physical comedy is so on point. But the aesthetics are also so soothing to watch (similar to why I binge-watch House Hunters). And the scene where Meryl Streep makes chocolate croissants for Steve Martin after-hours at her bakery is one of the most erotic in cinema to me.
Hazel: Wesley Morris ended his sour review of Ricki and The Flash with: “The whole thing is like watching a Nancy Meyers movie do community service.” Meyers wannabes like Grace and Frankie, And So It Goes, and Because I Said So (h/t to Durga) have popped up over the years, but just don’t have the same spark. How do you think people have tried to capture this unattainable Nancy Meyers-ness (lol) on screen and why do so many people get it wrong? Is there an easy formula to a Meyers movie and, if so, WTF is it so I can use it IRL in my 60s?
Durga: The second act of a woman’s life (and I don’t mean merely age) but also, a newfangled interpretation of companionship, friendship, big love once again, getting what’s yours, what’s deserved and essentially revitalizing a career, are all tropes that Meyers is not only preoccupied with, but her very preoccupation with them is her formula. She wears her preoccupation on her carefully cuffed sleeve. She is obsessive with detail. With securing a vision that nears “staged-home.” It doesn’t bother me because that’s her thing and she does it confidently, with care. In that NYTimes Daphne Merkin profile that was published in anticipation of It’s Complicated, there’s one moment where Meyers is in her editing room, meticulously having a go at one scene in particular, touching-up the most finite details so as to conserve the veneer she has so exactly established over the years. Everything must be smooth, for instance. No “spiky plants” of all things. “Keep it all soft,” she insists. When I read that detail I imagined how driven Meyers is by some self-made metric of perfectionism, how she’ll likely never make a movie about a woman who loses it or gets “messy” in a real way, and not just in a Cameron Diaz buying carbs and booze in an England hamlet grocery store kind of way. Meyers’ formula is restraint as it applies to white, middle to upper-class women. Meyers’ women exorcise their deep needs by cutting themselves free of their…white turtlenecks. Which isn’t totally true, but that scene from Something’s Gotta Give has become Meyers iconography. Maybe buried in some scripts, there is Annette Benning’s “I will sell this house” fervour from American Beauty. I doubt it.
Meyers prefers the presentation of seamlessness. She is unconcerned with the way Nicole Holofcener seeks observational and bluesy wit in her films, or how Nora Ephron loved a female lead with “good sense,” and instead furnishes mood with ornament: Diane Keaton’s nervous laugh, king-sized beds overwhelmed with throw pillows, late-at-the-office Frank Sinatra jams, collecting seashells as metaphor, an arsenal of countertops, farmhouse sinks, and cake stands. Meyers’ formula is so steeped in Container Store-type composition met with her own fidelity to detail and how it reflects a character’s inner tensions (detail that the average person can’t be bothered with) that it doesn’t surprise me how easy it is to spot a Meyers fake. That said, I can still appreciate a fake-Meyers film. They’re charming in their own way. Like the mock turtleneck version of her turtleneck films.
Emily: There’s a breeziness to her movies that I always appreciate, and I think it has a lot to do with the tinkling piano soundtracks. Bad things happen to her heroines, and they always sort of limp away from the rubble, supported by that whimsical BUM-bum-bum score. I suppose that’s just another example of Meyers’ attention to detail. Her pithy dialogue is easy to spot, too, and the best of her performers deliver the little observations and asides with a jaunty tone that matches the score. I’m thinking of the little hop Harry Sanborn does when he notices the dark stone on Erica’s collection. He raises his eyebrows and goes, “top of the heap!” quietly. I love the private glee Meyers makes you feel, like you’re in on a cute little secret, because so many of her films’ important moments happen when a character is alone.
Durga: I love that you mention the score, Emily! Jack Black’s character in The Holiday felt like someone Meyers actually works with — the sort of collaborator who arrives in the studio with a bounty of movie trivia. A good-natured genius who’s memorized a canon of old studio soundtracks. The breeziness is definitely an outcome of her scores: they are at once mischievous and playful but seem, with each note, to tell a story. Like mini-twinkling anthems for each character’s arc.
Tyler: It seems unavoidable to compare Meyers to Nora Ephron, although I agree with what Durga says: Meyers’ women never completely unravel the way Ephron’s can (I’m thinking, in particular, Meryl in It’s Complicated vs. Meryl in Heartburn). Meyers’s M.O. is “keep it breezy, keep it beachy.” Maybe my appreciation for it is rooted in the extremely low stakes she sets up for her characters’ conflict. That’s probably also why a lot of people find her movies somewhat annoying! But again, the stakes are always subjective, and I generally feel as though someone’s hatred of Meyers’ movies is indicative of some deeply rooted anger toward, I dunno, rich white women? Who, as a group, can be annoying, but are probably the least offensive and awful demographic out there. I always mention a co-worker who screamed — SCREAMED! — at me when I said that It’s Complicated is a good movie. “Oh, the one about the lady buying a new kitchen? Yeah, I can really relate to that!” This might be my queer experience here, but…do you have to relate to a protagonist to enjoy a movie? I rarely see many characters exactly like me, and I grew up having to see myself in a variety of people on screen. (Also, does my former coworker “relate” to any of the characters in Pulp Fiction? Gimme a break.) Maybe the idea that Meyer’s successful formula has influenced copycat movies is something that seems so tiresome to mostly male critics, who would rather watch movies about things other than emotional catharses and, well, feelings in general. Those types of movies (at least in Quentin Tarantino’s point of view) are not what anyone “will remember,” because I guess they lack some sort of prestigious filmmaking quality? But I would suggest that Meyers is as much of an auteur as anyone else.
Lindsey: At my current life-stage, I don’t relate to Meyers women at all, but that doesn’t mean I don’t totally idolize them. And despite the fancy kitchens, I think the magic of Meyers Female is the idea that even the most uptight person can loosen up given the right (magical) circumstances. Sure, those circumstances have to be a surprise baby, or a house swap, or that perhaps your co-worker starts hearing women’s thoughts…but a small shake-up that spins your life into a romantic tailspin? And what will you do? I love it.
Hazel: Meyers launched her career with Private Benjamin, which was turned down by studios at first for featuring a female lead without a male co-star. Since then she’s been one of the most successful female writers and directors in Hollywood, making movies primarily about and for women. Still, I wonder if a female director making strides in the rom-com genre she works in is still considered as trailblazing today, when complaints are being raised over super-hero directors? What do you think Meyers has done for telling stories about women, or are her movies as much for men as they are for women?
Emily: There’s something unapologetically WASPy and feminine about her movies that I so appreciate. I’m thinking of the scene in Something’s Gotta Give where Diane Keaton is setting her table for dinner while describing her new play. She calls her heroine controlling and neurotic in this aggressive voice that makes everyone in the room stare at her. When she’s called out for writing about her worst self, she brushes it off, adding that the heroine is “incredibly cute and likeable.” Meyers’ women all do that manic, frustrated scream-sound at some point, I believe. It’s just refreshing to watch her characters get frustrated with their environments, although they never really lose that linen-pants-white-wine kind of sheen. Her work may not be blazing new trails, but it’s consistently pleasant.
Hazel: Maybe that’s what’s important, that people itch for a Nancy Meyers romantic narrative the way they itch for a Tarantino action movie or a fucked up family Baumbach flick. That she’s recognized as mastering not just a specific way of storytelling but an aesthetic that ties every little maddening or anxious moment up together in a bow.
Gabriella: Yes, her films are consistently pleasant and she has carved out her signature space in the genre. And, regardless of whether or not she’s considered a trailblazer, the numbers speak for themselves — she’s been consistently successful at the box office (What Women Want was the highest grossest film directed by a woman at the time of its release).
Lindsey: Rom-coms are harder than they look! That’s what makes good ones so great. When I’m writing, I try and think about this, from an interview she gave The Independent in 2010: “Movies don’t look hard, but figuring it out, getting the shape of it, getting everybody’s character right and having it be funny, make sense and be romantic, it’s creating a puzzle. Yes, having been a writer for so long, I have an awareness of when things are going awry, but it doesn’t mean I know how to fix them.” For all those times when something genuinely nuts happens to you and you’re like, this would make a great rom-com.
Tyler: To go back to what I was saying before: I genuinely loathe the gender essentialism at play when it comes to movie fandom. Romantic comedies are rarely seen as art, unless they are Annie Hall or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (again: prestige filmmaking that rely on filmmaking gimmickry as much as they do realistic human emotion, also: a male perspective). Nora Ephron gets a bad rap for this, too: she’s treated as low-brow because, I suppose, she was working in a more commercial space. I have a friend who knew Ephron, and he once put it very well: she was smart as hell, and could have been a Susan Sontag type if she wanted to. But she didn’t: she wanted to be entertaining — and she did so by also being smart as hell. It seems pointless to compare the two, but people seem hell-bent on proving that artists who choose light, mainstream material aren’t as worthy of appreciation as the opposite. Which is real dumb, because why can’t you like both? Also, I have never heard anyone complain that James L. Brooks is making movies solely for women, so.
Hazel: Rom-coms have been dying for awhile and I wonder what everyone thinks about it because I really see Meyers as the last person consistently making classic rom-coms. These days I feel like they’re either too snarkily self-aware of their genre (500 Days of Summer, Trainwreck) or if they’re truly sincere they just don’t feel memorable enough. What about Meyers movies these past few years strike you, at all, as feeling important for romantic comedies? Does it even matter if the genre is dying when we have all these great movies about female friendship and women writing comedies where romance is just a footnote? [FWIW: I’m not sure if The Intern IS a rom-com (Lindsey’s seen it, BUT NO SPOILERS LINDSEY) though it seems Meyers’ next project might be?]
Lindsey: IT KIND OF ISNT!
Emily: My problem with those stale, slapped-together contemporary rom-coms is that they’re usually just vehicles for the costars, rather than a celebration of what falling in love can do to a person. Meyers’ heroines fall in love, but not always permanently (It’s Complicated is great for this reason; Meryl Streep’s character needs to have an affair with her ex-husband in order to move on. Just because they’re not meant to move forward together doesn’t make their temporary connection false or damaging.) Meyers’ movies are technically romantic comedies, yes, but they’re really just comedies celebrating the feeling of being swept away by something (whether it’s that song Cameron Diaz dances to in The Holiday, or weed and croissants, or reading your own pages while walking in circles on the beach). Also, there’s rarely any snark in Meyers’ movies, just wit. She doesn’t elbow you in the ribs about things.
Hazel: I really love that, “a celebration of what falling in love can do to a person.”
Durga: Same is true with Kate Winslet’s character in The Holiday. She needs to have that aha moment with her boss who surprise visits her in LA to realize he’s essentially, trash. His kind of love, the kind that expects the woman to provide her love and whip-smart instincts in exchange for his mediocrity, is finally stale. No more sparks. Falling out of love in a Meyers movie has less to do with the other person and more to do with, as corny as this sounds, falling back in love with yourself, making room for yourself. She does this literally: Meryl building an extension to her Santa Barbara home, and figuratively, Kate Winslet not rushing into anything too quickly. A Meyers film isn’t about immediately saying “I do!” and instead of about asking more practical questions like, “Do you have any plans for New Year’s?” Her pacing, romantically speaking, is very play-it-by-ear.
Emily: I just want to say I found myself nodding emphatically in response to that. Falling in love with yourself, oh man. None of her characters find their second wind in life through paint-n-drink parties or salsa classes or whatever. It’s always time spent alone that gets them back on the right track.
Lindsey: I just hate that we are living in an era where the rom-com is “dead” — perhaps they aren’t in style at the box office right now, but the magic of VOD, streaming, etc. is that the rom-com has just deflated (a bit!) and shifted elsewhere. And while Nancy Meyers movies will alway be big (and maybe that’s why made us wait seven years for The Intern?) not all rom-coms are, and there have been a bunch of wonderful ones over the past few years: Ruby Sparks, Good Dick, In a World…, Obvious Child, The Four-Faced Liar, The One I Love, Two Night Stand… I could go on and on, but rom-coms are far from dead, they’re just spending way less time in theaters (or no time at all!) All the better opportunity to curl up on your couch, spend $6 instead of $15, and order a pizza. I think Nancy would approve.
Tyler: As far as I’m concerned, rom-coms can never die because there are still plenty of people who have not seen themselves — or at least people who look like them on the most surface level — represented as rom-com protagonists. I reject the idea that rom-coms are frivolous or throw-away cultural artifacts. The pursuit of love — or at least emotional fulfillment through another person’s affections, whether it be brief or long-lasting — is something that nearly all people experience. I mean, I would certainly like to see two gay men fall in love in a movie that wasn’t clearly made for less than a million bucks, with good acting and smart writing and an ending that didn’t involve one of them getting the shit kicked out of them or dying of complications from an autoimmune disorder. Maybe that’s me being selfish! Nancy Meyers has taught me that’s just fine.
Hazel: It’s been said before that Nancy is basically “allergic to black people” when it comes to casting her movies. When POC in mainstream films barely get more than a few seconds of screen-time, rom-coms for black women are still rare, and Chris Rock has basically cast her next movie, do you think Meyers will ever diversify her movies? Is the whitebread, WASPy world she mines an excuse for how whitewashed her moves are? Are her movies, as I saw one commenter somewhere once describe, “white lady erotica?”
Durga: Nancy Meyers is not the director who will solve this major Hollywood problem and I don’t think anyone should expect her to. She is very clear about the white world she lives in, and at this point, it nears parody. Which is fine, whatever. That’s Nancy. I love the idea of her working with Chris Rock. But I love it so long as they collaborate on a character. He’d write something, as he notes in that interview, for his mother to watch, and she’d probably learn a thing or two, or ten. The movie would come out during Thanksgiving, it would be called something like, In It Together or So It Goes or The Blind Date.
Emily: Durga, that sounds perfect. Chris Rock has proven himself a chameleon this way again and again. I was sold on the idea of him starring in a Meyers movie after I watched 2 Days in New York, which he did with Julie Delpy. Plus, I’d argue that his taste is way, way more saccharine than Meyers’ (Top Five was pretty cheesy, though I liked it a lot). They would actually balance each other out well.
Hazel: Yes, I just remember going into Top Five knowing nothing about it only that it was Chris Rock making a movie where he essentially plays himself a la Stardust Memories and being so, like, DELIGHTED, that it really is a very classic meet-cute rom-com (tired, sexy female journalist tropes aside.) Anyone who has a mother with a penchant for Nancy Meyers just *gets* it.
Tyler: I took my mom to see Top Five with me and she did NOT enjoy it. (Also, do not see Top Five with your mom.)
Emily: Also, I want to add that I just read that interview with Chris Rock for the first time, and he absolutely nailed it suggesting Kerry Washington. Half of the appeal of Scandal is just watching Washington sad-float around her white apartment with a glass of wine. She would fit perfectly in a Meyers house. Now I’m just imagining her leaning on her elbows, on her immaculate kitchen island and sighing wistfully.
Tyler: I also love the idea of someone like Mary Kay Place playing her assistant in a Nancy Meyers movie. Like, just fetching her coffee and planning meetings and then having one really great scene with her. Or maybe it’s just my dream that Mary Kay Place is cast in every movie? That’s all I really want.
Gabriella: It’s interesting to hear the Nancy Meyers “white lady erotica” thing called out so many years later, because I distinctly remember watching Parent Trap as a child and feeling so fascinated by the very white, seemingly unattainable, lifestyle depicted. I grew up with two strict immigrant parents in a 98% white Connecticut suburb and in my mind, that’s how everyone else around me spent their summer vacations: away and free at a beautiful, luxe camp eating Oreos with peanut butter (and maybe reuniting their long-divorced parents, how would I know?). After seeing the rest of her movies, I agree that the WASPiness has almost reached a level of parody. I had totally forgotten that Chris Rock said he wanted to collaborate with Meyers in that interview and yes, yes, a thousand times yes. (Yes to Mary Kay Place too.)
Tyler: Nancy Meyers is writing about what she knows, and she knows about white people who live within a certain tax bracket. On the one hand, I see how it comes across as very exclusive, but I also wonder what it would like if she attempted to depict any other experience. I’d be interested to see her direct a movie written by a person of color — and one that featured characters that acknowledge their non-white identities. Or maybe I’d like to see Meyers’ characters recognize their privilege? Could she accomplish that and maintain that breezy aesthetic she’s established already? I’m not sure, but I would love to see what that attempt yields.
Hazel: It’s Complicated producer Scott Rudin once said this about Meyers’ sets: “Everything — the silverware, the food in the fridge — is part of the narrative.” Every Nancy Meyers movie from The Parent Trap to It’s Complicated, has these lavish, cashmere-covered, granite counter-filled houses, and they’re as important to her fandom as her screenwriting. Would Meyers movies be the same without her pristine decoration and interiors? Has a Nancy Meyers interior greatly impacted your life or touched your heart and, if yes, HOW SO?
Emily: So, all I clearly remember from The Parent Trap is the voluminous, marshmallow-white bed the girls’ mom sleeps in, in her London apartment. I love the scene where tiny Lindsay Lohan hides her ginger little face under the perfect comforter when her true identity is revealed. I think by the time she made The Holiday, Meyers had become acutely aware of her reputation. Her two Holiday heroines decide to solve their problems by…trying out a different beautiful house. The heroine in It’s Complicated is literally building additions onto her house with the help of the guy who building additions onto her…personality, or happiness, or something. I love the whole interior-decor-as-plot-device thing so much that when Amanda Peet says “here’s the beautiful two-story living room, which I predict we will spend no time in,” in Something’s Gotta Give, I always feel my heart drop, even though I know we get the candlelit kiss later. I mean, of course Erica Barry just happened to have a HUGE stash of white candles for the thunder storm.
Hazel: I skimmed over your line “decide to solve their problems by…trying out a different beautiful house” and thought you were talking about The Parent Trap instead of The Holiday at first, then realized they’re basically the same sort of switcheroo movie. I mean, twinsie looks and conniving divorce schemes aside.
Durga: Meyers loves a switch, that’s so true! Like Harry and Erica mixing up whose glasses are whose in Something’s Gotta Give.
Gabriella: Emily, I had totally forgotten about that London apartment but yes, it was incredible. I am so unabashedly drawn to the trademark Nancy Meyers Lifestyle (the perfect interior decorating, the soft muted fabrics the characters drape themselves in). It’s strange, because when I see the same level of detail and curation in, say, a lifestyle blog I can’t help but roll my eyes. It can feel inauthentic and overly precious. But when I’m watching one of her movies, I’m sucked into it; it’s fiction, and I can suspend my disbelief that someone with a real life can maintain that level of perfection. I just want a candle that smells like a Nancy Meyers movie.
Lindsey: I recently moved to California from New York and people here actually live on Nancy Meyers movie sets. Imagine actually having to cook something in a pristine Meyers-esque set-up. It’s unthinkable.
Tyler: I’m honestly surprised there hasn’t been a Nancy Meyers-themed interiors catalog? Is this my get-rich-quick scheme?
Hazel Cills is a writer and witch living in New York City.