It’s tempting to forgive the director Nancy Meyers everything for writing Diane Keaton such a sleek and form-fitting role in the romantic comedy (with the meaningless title) Something’s Gotta Give (Columbia Pictures). The picture shows the actress off as beautifully as the white turtlenecks she wears: As Erica Barry, a successful divorced playwright in her late 50s, Keaton is not only funny, she’s grounded, without a hint of the old Annie Hall neurasthenic dither. For a time the most fragile of actresses (some of her great ‘80s performances were like wobbly tightrope acts), she’s now lean and confident onscreen—and probably closer to the way she is in life. (When I interviewed her 15 years ago, it struck me that the real Keaton wasn’t the la-di-da Annie but the Annie who sat on a park bench with Woody Allen making snarky comments about passersby.) Meyers does give Keaton a laughing/crying hysterical number: You can’t let your female protagonist seem too together in a mainstream romantic comedy. But for most of the film, she’s dry, warily defended, and fantastically articulate. A revelation.
The movie itself reveals nothing, but it’s entertaining. Meyers structures it as a “mature” woman’s revenge fantasy. It begins with the infamous bachelor (and commitment-phobe) mogul Harry Langer (Jack Nicholson) delivering an ode to a procession of young, creamy, jaw-droppingly gorgeous model types. (“Some say I’m an expert on younger women. That’s because I’ve been dating them for over 40 years.”) Then it proceeds to humiliate him, first with a heart attack, then with a display of his unappetizing bare buttocks, then by competition from a character (played by Keanu Reeves) much younger and fitter than he is. It’s a testament to how little erotic power older women hold in this culture that even with all those strikes against him, Nicholson’s Harry still seems the stronger figure.
Harry’s current girlfriend, Marin (Amanda Peet), is the daughter of Keaton’s Erica—who would barely penetrate his consciousness if she and her sister (Frances McDormand) didn’t bust in on the couple in the early stages of foreplay. The movie’s sitcom premise is that Nicholson has a mild coronary while romancing Marin at her mother’s East Hampton beach house: It’s the mom who has to look after him when his cardiologist (Reeves) won’t let him go back to Manhattan. This creates an awkward situation for Harry, who’s not used to spending time with women his own age, and one of the film’s big set pieces is when he stumbles across her naked and recoils in horror.
He’s the only one who does, by the way. It seems hardly fair to cast Keaton as Everyolderwoman since her body is willowy (she doesn’t appear to have an ounce of adipose tissue) and there are many more plusses than minuses in her lack of plastic surgery. Her features are mobile and expressive, her eyes bright, her lips her own. She looks slim and gorgeous—more so than in some of her films from a decade ago.
This is not a conventional “chick flick” because Meyers pulls off a neat trick. She shows you young women through the eyes of a man (i.e., “the male gaze”), then shifts to the derisive perspective of an older woman. It’s as if she’s saying, “I’m going to dangle these babes in front of you and then make relentless fun of you for looking.” She also has an ingenious device for her third act. Just when the love story (and potentially the movie) runs aground, she has Erica write a hit play about her failed relationship with Harry—the ultimate payback, and one that makes the earlier sitcom material seem less stilted in retrospect. (It develops more layers when you think about who Meyers might have been getting back at in her own life.)
There’s an old-fashioned feel to Something’s Gotta Give. It recalls an earlier movie era of moneyed protagonists and glamour close-ups. (It’s better-designed than most ‘50s romances, though, with a mutely tasteful palette of creamy whites and beiges and pale yellows.) It’s a good thing it’s so much fun watching Diane and Jack play because there are no other characters. McDormand makes a great entrance, but Meyers appears to forget about her. Peet begins promisingly by wriggling out of her clothes, then recedes into a walking ad for blue-tinted contact lenses. (Those might be her real eyes, but they’re still impossibly aquamarine.) Jon Favreau, as Harry’s assistant, looks like he’s there because he lost a bet. The preview audience burst out laughing when Keanu Reeves showed up as a doctor—not because he couldn’t be, but because he looks so much like those earnest male ingénues of the ‘50s and ‘60s who we now know were gay.
I love Nicholson here because he lets Keaton take the movie—and his relative reticence is very attractive. He was quoted in the days of Reds (1981) saying that Keaton was “impossible,” and maybe she still puts him on edge. Or maybe she has mellowed, and he looks back on their contentious past with a certain fondness. Whatever, they make each other seem more alive, which is maybe the best thing you can say about a romantic comedy in which the protagonists are reduced to making jokes about wrinkle creams and Viagra.