Combustible Celluloid
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With: Jack Nicholson, Diane Keaton, Amanda Peet, Keanu Reeves, Frances McDormand, Jon Favreau, Paul Michael Glaser, Rachel Ticotin
Written by: Nancy Meyers
Directed by: Nancy Meyers
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sexual content, brief nudity and strong language
Running Time: 128
Date: 12/12/2003

Something's Gotta Give (2003)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Fun from the Heart

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Nancy Meyers' third film as director certainly doesn't explore any new territory, but it does happily retread comfortable ground, feeling the well-worn grooves and appreciating their smoothness once more.

Diane Keaton -- who recently won the National Board of Review's Best Actress award -- partially revisits her Oscar-winning neurotic Annie Hall performance, albeit this time better dressed and less likely to say things like "la-de-da." Here she's more aware of herself, aware of the chasm between control and emotional chaos. It's a lovely portrait of an older woman reawakened.

Meyers has also brought back "saucy" Jack Nicholson, the one with the wolfish grin hinting at guilty pleasures; the one who gets away with everything. This Jack hasn't been around since maybe As Good as It Gets and not in full force since The Witches of Eastwick (1987).

This may not be the Jack that wins awards with exceptional performances -- as in About Schmidt and The Pledge -- but this is the Jack we love.

In Something's Gotta Give Nicholson plays Harry Langer, a self-made man and a bachelor at 63 who exclusively dates women under 30. His latest catch is Marin Berry (Amanda Peet), who invites Harry to her family's beach house for a romantic weekend.

Once there, he accidentally runs into Marin's mom, Erica (Keaton), a successful and sexy but uptight playwright. Erica's sister (Frances McDormand), a women's studies professor, also turns up to put an educated spin on things.

Unfortunately, just as Harry is about to consummate his relationship with Marin, he suffers a heart attack. The three women whisk him to the nearest hospital where single doctor Julian (Keanu Reeves) intervenes. Although Julian becomes instantly infatuated with Erica, he insists that Harry stay at her place for a while so as to be nearby the hospital.

Of course, sparks fly when these two opposites collide.

For the film's first hour, Meyers' dialogue sparkles; it's sheer bliss to watch these two seasoned performers wrap their lips around those sweet nuggets filled with laughter. The script is also dotted with several revealingly honest moments between mother and daughter that help us see into Erica's character with her strengths and flaws.

Unfortunately, the plot soon runs out of steam. Not only does Meyers add on increasingly ridiculous plot twists and epilogues, but she also clocks the whole thing in at just over two hours. You'd think that with a Woody Allen veteran aboard, she would have remembered the 90-minute rule for comedies.

Indeed, despite her gift for characters and dialogue, Meyers has little interest in structure. The further she gets from the beach house and her two principal characters, the choppier the story gets.

Meyers even uses the ages-old gimmick of writing about a writer who writes about her own life -- and writes everything exactly as it happened.

This failing extends to Meyers' visual sense as a director. Her clean, evenly-lit setups emphasize the actors' good looks without adding anything special, and her idea of visual splendor extends to incredibly expensive sets, props and wardrobes -- culminating in an obligatory trip to Paris in winter.

Despite all this, I would argue that the film works thanks to its spectacular first half and a beautiful verbal tete-a-tete between two superb actors. Their giddiness and sheer delight in one another translates into a wonderfully gooey romantic interlude, one completely independent of age.

Not to mention that we're looking at two excellent comedians, intrinsically aware not only of line delivery but also of movement. They're both playing in their element, embodying characters they perfected long ago. Even if Meyers doesn't always know what to do with them, they know well enough themselves (they have both directed their own films, after all).

Lastly, it's unforgivable that a writer who can cook up such good dialogue would settle on a passive and forgettable title like Something's Gotta Give. That could be the title to any movie. I say we call it Jack and Diane and leave it at that.

(This review originally appeared in The San Francisco Examiner.)

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