A plot against them

Times Staff Writer

Ah, the complications of age-appropriate romance in the movies. It’s the comic gift of “Something’s Gotta Give” and its writer-director, Nancy Meyers, to make the romantic relationship between a 63-year-old man and a fiftysomething woman -- no big deal in the real world -- into a situation so preposterous it’s the cause for some shrewd and believable comedy.

But when the film wants to, in effect, double back on itself to then make this relationship a serious one, it finds that it’s more of a strain to return to reality than anyone imagined. The production has done so well in making what’s natural implausible that the long and circuitous route it ends up taking to reverse that idea removes a lot of the fun from what had been an amusing picture.

Writer-director Meyers, whose credits extend back to co-writing 1980’s “Private Benjamin” and the delicious “Irreconcilable Differences,” has a knack for finding the humor in the way we live our lives, and she has come up with both a fine hook and an expert cast to play it out.


The notion is at once simple, plausible and subversive: aging, self-satisfied womanizer Harry Sanborn (Jack Nicholson) falls for successful playwright Erica Barry (Diane Keaton), a woman who just happens to be the mother of Marin (Amanda Peet), the young person he’s currently dating.

Not for nothing has the never-married Sanborn been written up in New York magazine as “The Escape Artist.” Though he unctuously tells Marin that “one of the great things about me is that I don’t have a type,” in fact, as he’s already told us in voice-over, he definitely does: “I’ve been dating younger women,” he says, and not with regret, “for over 40 years.”

We catch up with wealthy entrepreneur Harry, looking very much the paunchy lounge lizard complete with cigar, convertible and sunglasses, when he’s driving out to the Hamptons with Marin to consummate their relationship in what they both believe will be her mother’s empty beach house.

But Mom is very much around, and one of the movie’s sharpest scenes takes place when Erica and her feisty “I was in the Israeli army” sister Zoe (a letter-perfect, all-too-brief Frances McDormand), who just happens to teach women’s studies at Columbia, mistake Harry for an intruder. The joke is, Erica is angrier at Harry when she finds out the real reason he’s in her house than she was when she thought he was a dangerous thief. Her character’s take-no-prisoners disgust bracingly tangible, Keaton and the film are at their best here, with Meyers’ lines and the actress’ delivery benefiting from the bite of reality this contemporary issue brings to the table.

Nicholson, his character clearly discomforted at the hostility he evokes, is equally good at playing the humor. In addition to being amusing, his is a game performance, with the actor, unlike some others, clearly not averse to playing his age or, for that matter, taking pratfalls, looking foolish or (as both he and Keaton eventually do) playing scenes that call for some bodily exposure.

These two are clearly destined to spend more time together than they realize, which is where Harry’s sudden heart attack comes in. This not only makes his staying on as Erica’s houseguest more plausible, it introduces another major player in Julian Mercer (Keanu Reeves), a handsome young doctor who is also a major fan of Erica’s plays and, soon enough, of the woman who wrote them.

Though “Something’s Gotta Give” is at its best when Harry and Erica are at loggerheads, it is also pleasant during the recuperation period, when veterans Nicholson and Keaton mix comedy and romance as they put antipathies aside and discover what they see in each other.

Nice as all that is, however, it’s not enough for a feature, and “Something’s Gotta Give” knows that. But the attempts the film makes to remedy the situation and continue to hold our interest do not manage to be as involving as the setup.

Stratagem One is to build up that handsome young doctor as Harry’s romantic rival. There’s nothing wrong with the idea, but whereas Peet is lively and funny as well as young and beautiful, Keanu Reeves is, well, Keanu Reeves, with the unfortunate emotional deadness that implies.

A bigger problem is not just that “Something” pretty much abandons comedy to turn itself into a surprisingly straightforward romantic drama, but how convoluted and attenuated the plot gets to make that transformation happen. The film starts to feel complex simply because complexities are needed to get it to feature length.

“People need romance,” Erica says at one point, likely speaking for the writer-director as well as herself, “and if somebody like me doesn’t write it, where are they going to get it?” Fair enough, but “Something’s Gotta Give” stumbles in miscalculating how far it needs to go to make this particular romance convincing when, as another romantic comedy character put it, it had us from hello.


‘Something’s Gotta Give’

MPAA rating: PG-13, for sexual content, brief nudity and strong language

Times guidelines: Some nudity and mild sexual situations

Jack Nicholson...Harry Sanborn

Diane Keaton...Erica Barry

Keanu Reeves...Julian Mercer

Frances McDormand...Zoe

Amanda Peet...Marin

Columbia Pictures and Warner Bros. Pictures present a Waverly Films production, released by Columbia Pictures. Director Nancy Meyers. Producers Bruce A. Block, Nancy Meyers. Screenplay Nancy Meyers. Cinematographer Michael Ballhaus. Editor Joe Hutshing. Costumes Suzanne McCabe. Music Hans Zimmer. Production design Jon Hutman. Art director John Warnke. Set decorator Beth A. Rubino. Running time: 2 hours,

8 minutes.

In general release.