As the early-spring rush of video releases is abating, we will dig back a few weeks to take a look at another misconceived romantic comedy, the pointlessly titled Something's Gotta Give. (Anyone hoping, as I was, that this might be a sly reference to the most memorable line in the famous 1992 "Seinfeld" episode "The Contest" will be disappointed.) It's tempting to describe this Diane Keaton-Jack Nicholson vehicle about late-in-life love as a bad movie. But that would be giving it too much credit, because it's hardly a movie at all. It's more like the pitch for a movie, not a film but a project, the brainstorm of an agent-auteur, something Tim Robbins might have listened to in the opening scene of The Player: "It's Annie Hall meets Terms of Endearment. After coming back to New York, Annie became a successful playwright, got married, had a kid, got divorced. Now she's rattling around in a beach house--like in Play It Again, Sam, but nicer. Along comes what's-his-name, Jack's character in Terms of Endearment, you know, the astronaut. He's a record executive now. He's done with Shirley MacLaine and back to dating young girls. He meets Annie--Diane--because he's dating her twentysomething daughter, and they immediately hate each other. But they love each other, too. So it's a battle of the sexes, because Jack's still charming but offensive and Diane's still pretty but neurotic. It'll be a movie about older men with younger women, and older women with younger men--we'll get some kid, like maybe Keanu, to be interested in Diane, too--and, this is the best part, older men with older women. It'll just kill with the forty and over crowd."
Something's Gotta Give never moves much beyond this cynical premise. Writer-director Nancy Meyer opens the film with perhaps the most painfully contrived setup since the cancellation of "Three's Company." Nicholson and his young girlfriend (Amanda Peet) go to her mother's gorgeous Hamptons beach house to spend the weekend consummating their relationship. No sooner do they arrive than Mom (Keaton) and her sister (Frances McDormand) show up. Nicholson and Keaton take an immediate dislike to each other, but all four nonetheless decide to stay at the beach house together. ("We're all sophisticated people," explains McDormand.) That night, during foreplay with Peet, Nicholson suffers a heart attack and is rushed to the hospital. When he recovers, his young doctor (Keanu Reeves) releases him from the hospital but only on the condition that he remain "nearby"--i.e., at Keaton's house. McDormand and Peet scram almost immediately, leaving the two antagonists alone to fight, complain, fall in love, split up, fight, complain, and fall in love again.
This plot develops with all the imagination of a flow chart. Meyer (who also did Private Benjamin, Baby Boom, and both Father of the Bride remakes) knows exactly what each scene is supposed to do and sends loud enough signals that everyone in the audience knows, too. The problem is that all too often Meyer uses this collective knowledge as an excuse not to have the scene actually do what we all know it was supposed to do. For example, there's the walk-on-the-beach scene where Keaton and Nicholson bond over the long lives they've lived and the travails they've overcome. Meyer's treatment of the moment is weirdly attenuated: Nicholson says he learned all about Keaton's life from an Internet search; she confesses to having done the same for him and gives a ten-second summary of his resume. "The truth is," Keaton concludes, "it goes by fast, doesn't it?" Yes, it did. Here are two people who do not need to know each other, they need only to know how to access knowledge of each other: contemporary love! The film is full of moments like this, shorthand scenes that are needed to further the plot or fulfill the requirements of the genre, but that Meyer never took the time to write in any meaningful sense.
Meyer's authorial laziness is further enabled by the casting of Keaton and Nicholson, both of whom are so familiar to moviegoers that the business of developing their characters is largely done for her. Nicholson is playing Nicholson, right down to the sunglasses and cigars, in the most self-parodying role of a career characterized by self-parody. Indeed, the only way a man this coarse and fat and vain could get hot young sex in his sixties is if he actually is Jack Nicholson; if we for one moment believed that this lout was really a record producer named Harry Sanborn, the character would immediately be rendered either absurd or repulsive. (If you saw a 67-year-old man leer ostentatiously at a young woman's bottom in the grocery store and proceed to simulate oral sex on his ice cream cone, would you find it playfully charming or merely grotesque?) And Keaton is playing Keaton: She still makes do with her ostentatious collection of tics and gestures that will be familiar to anyone who's followed her work, especially her 1970s collaborations with Woody Allen. She stutters and giggles, she flips her hair and bites her lip, perennially caught between bubbly enthusiasm and gnawing self-doubt.