Something’s Gotta Give, written and directed by Nancy Meyers, is the sort of romantic comedy that owes more to production design than to mise-en-scène. It’s an enjoyable film but not a good one, and I requested to see it after Easter Sunday dinner with friends mostly to catch up with Keanu Reeves, whose Matrixing about in recent years has kept us, filmgoer and peerless actor, very far apart. The film, however, stars Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton, who dominate the show with rich, hilarious performances in somewhat artificial roles. Since the ages of Meyers and Erica Barry, Keaton’s character, pretty much coincide, and since Barry is a funny writer like Meyers (who wrote Keaton’s 1987 Baby Boom), I take Barry to be more or less a projection of Meyers. For her efforts, Keaton was named best actress by the National Board of Review and also won a Golden Globe.
Erica is a commercial playwright in the throes of pounding out her latest theatrical confection, for which her own life provides source material. In her mid-fifties, Erica lives in the Hamptons and is the mother of 30-year-old Marin (Amanda Peet), the public face of a high-priced Manhattan auction house. The director of Erica’s plays, Dave, is also her long-since ex-husband, Marin’s father. Erica, then, keeps her life tidy, her emotions yielding to the claims of craft and business. She has been unattached and celibate since her divorce.
Marin, the auctioneer, appears to her mother to be selling herself short. Her romantic life consists of one superficial involvement after another, and her current boyfriend, a perfect match in superficiality, is more than twice her age. This is multi-millionaire businessman and entrepreneur Harry Sanborn (Nicholson). Harry’s heart attack in Erica’s home leads to an affair between them, which is complicated by the fact that the doctor treating him in the Hamptons, a longtime fan of her work, falls in love with Erica. This is Julian Mercer (Reeves). The good doctor, in his mid-thirties, proves no competition for Harry, whose brush with death has begun a slow process by which, reluctantly shedding his Hugh Hefner-ways, he comes to respond lovingly to the full range of Erica’s vulnerable humanity.
The film is overcomplicated by too many characters and, partly as a result of this, it goes on too long for the slight though attractive thing it is. I understand; Meyers wanted to situate her main characters in a complexity of associations that hints some sort of reality. In truth, the cardboard comedy about four rich people with apparently too much time on their hands has only the smallest toehold in reality, and this much is due only to the sterling nature of the performances. Harry and Erica clinch their romance in Paris, and I have to say that Meyers’s Paris has none of the magical romance of Woody Allen’s Paris in Everyone Says I Love You (1996). Hers is an intelligent entertainment that has, ultimately, as little depth as Erica’s play, A Woman to Love.
But Meyers has given Keaton what we thought Allen had given her in Annie Hall (1977): the role of her career. Keaton hasn’t been this funny since Allen’s Sleeper (1973), and she is especially endearing when greeting Nicholson’s Harry with Erica’s artillery of defenses. Also, Keaton looks great, even (briefly) nude in a particularly funny, embarrassing moment between Erica and Harry. If anything, though, she is bettered by Nicholson, whose Harry is priceless. It’s a pleasure seeing these two seasoned pros together.
But Erica and Harry as a couple either make too much sense for romance or too little sense for theirs to be anything but a fleeting sexual encounter. As Gloria Steinem has succinctly put it, it’s hard to imagine Diane Keaton choosing Jack Nicholson over Keanu Reeves.
And it’s impossible to believe that Julian would so easily turn over Erica to Harry in Paris. The fact that this occurs offscreen suggests to me that Meyers didn’t believe it either.
Of course, Reeves contributes the film’s soundest performance. He has two great moments, one physical, one emotional: at one point, Julian climbs over a couch in pursuit of Erica; in Paris, the look on his face when Julian realizes that Erica is still in love with Harry is voluminous and unshakable. Overall, though, it’s the concentration of Reeves’s acting that amazes. Reeves makes it appear absolutely normal for Julian to be in love with Erica; there’s nothing odd to this love—nothing morbid or pathological. Reeves seized upon this element: that Julian begins as a fan of Erica’s stage plays—and Reeves opens an unexpected door with this key. His Julian isn’t at all infatuated or starstruck; rather, he finds Erica interesting. In Reeves’s interpretation, Julian’s interest in Erica as writer is prelude to his sexual interest in her and his subsequent falling in love with her. It’s a fresh, coherent piece of acting that bypasses the generalization of why a young man might fall for a much older woman and homes in on the particulars of the situation here: why this young man falls in love with Erica. And, as usual, Reeves executes his concept of a character without fuss or histrionic grandstanding. Meyers writes only artificial roles—rhetorical ones that bear the burden of a message or agenda. Reeves alone in the cast utterly transcends this artificiality.
Nicholson and Keaton do a much better job of entertaining us. But Reeves, even in this trivial comedy, is the one who is steadfastly after truth.
After a trilogy in hell, he is back on earth.
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