Confession: I’ll watch any movie with Diane Keaton in it. No matter how retro the gender politics, no matter how icky the celebrity pairings (cf. Jack Nicholson’s meaty paws on Keaton’s gorgeous body in Something’s Gotta Give), no matter how many reaction shots involving dogs, I’m buying a box of Red Vines and a ticket.
What is it about Keaton that keeps me coming back for more even after turgid disappointments like The Family Stone and, now, Because I Said So? It’s not just nostalgia for the Annie Hall days. Yes, Keaton is still charmingly goofy, with an inimitable sense of style (the costumes in Because I Said So are by Shay Cunliffe, who also worked with Keaton in The Family Stone and Mrs. Soffel, but you get the impression that Keaton had a big say in her wardrobe choices). But her career hasn’t lasted this long on “la-di-da”s and well-cut jackets alone. Keaton is virtually the only American actress of her generation to have aged truly gracefully, both onscreen and off.
For me and, I’d bet, a lot of other women who occupy the unmarked cultural territory somewhere between young and “older” (older than what?), Keaton’s un-Botoxed face, unaugmented body, and uncompromised personal life are something of an inspiration. I love that she never married, that she adopted two children in her 50s, and that she continues to pursue interests (directing odd documentaries, publishing books of photographs) that are more than vanity projects. Keaton’s enduring appeal isn’t that she’s stuck in an eternal girlhood, it’s that she makes being a grown woman look like so much fun. The problem is, the movies haven’t grown up along with her.
In Because I Said So, Keaton plays Daphne Wilder, a single mother of three who’s just about to turn 60. What Daphne does for a living is never entirely clear. We see her at one point behind the counter of a bakery, and there’s a great deal of recipe talk and fussing over pastries. Whatever her profession, it’s garnered Daphne some choice romantic-comedy real estate: a chicly appointed L.A. mansion with a garden view. In fact, Daphne is dauntingly perfect in general, a tightly wound control freak with an enviable vintage wardrobe and a penchant for rearranging her daughters’ furniture.
For the offspring of a woman with such vaunted taste, those daughters have curiously matchy first names. Maggie (Lauren Graham) is a psychologist with a husband and child; Mae (Piper Perabo) is an apparently unemployed hottie recently married to a guy who can’t keep his hands off her; and Milly (Mandy Moore) is an accident-prone caterer with horrible taste in men. Frustrated with Milly’s latest romantic disappointment, Daphne takes out a personal ad online seeking suitors for her daughter. A seemingly endless interview montage finally yields one prospective candidate: a yuppie architect named Jason (Tom Everett Scott). (What is it with the prevalence of architecture as a career for love interests in the movies? If there were that many architects on earth, the sun would long ago have been blocked out by skyscrapers.)
Jason is the ideal mate for Milly, which, of course, in rom-com logic, must mean its own opposite. Not knowing her mother engineered the match, Milly begins to fall for judgmental Jason (nicely underplayed by Scott), but she’s also drawn to free-spirited musician Johnny (Gabriel Macht, showcasing his character’s free-spiritedness in fedoras and awful vests). Johnny’s rightness is further telegraphed by the fact that he lives with his son (Ty Panitz) and his father Joe (Stephen Collins) in a cottage on the Venice Beach canal. The eventual Joe/Daphne match is as inevitable as the one between Milly and Johnny, but harder to root for. Stephen Collins is a likeable enough actor, but come on—kindly Rev. Camden from the TV show 7th Heaven as a life partner for Diane freakin’ Keaton? When is she going to get to end up with someone really hot?
The problem with Because I Said So isn’t that it’s formulaic and predictable; fans of romantic comedy can get around those qualities, and even appreciate them. It’s that the film keeps missing out on its own opportunities for comic gold. Your own mother asking you what an orgasm feels like: What greater setup for a scene of mortifying, please-God-take-me-now embarrassment and stammering prevarication? Instead, in the alternate universe of Because I Said So, Milly launches into an enthusiastic ode to the curling of toes, causing filmgoers everywhere to sink five inches lower in their seats. The Wilder gals’ frankness about their bodies, presented as evidence of Sex and the City-style liberation, borders on the incestuously pathological: You half-expect Milly to edify Daphne with a mother-daughter reach-around. Similarly, a scene in which Daphne refuses to leave her daughter’s apartment as a date knocks at the door doesn’t come off as endearing slapstick—it makes Daphne look like a needy, overbearing jerk.
As we’ll no doubt be reminded again in a few weeks, when Michelle Pfeiffer plays an “older” woman in love with a younger man (Paul Rudd) in I Could Never Be Your Woman (why not? Be his woman, Michelle!), Hollywood is still grappling with the fact that American women now outlive their fertility (and often, their men) by 30 years or more. In this shameful last act of their lives, actresses are allowed to be mothers (especially of the meddling, empty-nest sort Keaton embodies here) or wise and twinkling grandmothers (witness the recent career of the great Gena Rowlands). They can also cautiously get their grooves back with younger men before settling down with Rev. Camden or Randle McMurphy. What they don’t seem to have the space to do is to grow into people like the real-life Diane Keaton: smart, curious, independent women you would actually want to know.