by Ray Pride
To discover something unexpected like Something's Gotta Give is the best surprise in a moviegoing life: a superb, perhaps even great romantic comedy that evades caricature, celebrates love, and it's from a director whose previous work aggravated me so much I'd find myself biting my cheek until it bled. Nancy Meyers' Something's Gotta Give is a substantial leap above her earlier work, such as the commercially successful but disreputable What Men Want, or the forgettable, would-be zeitgeist surfing she did with her ex-husband, the director Charles Shyer (Baby Boom, Father of the Bride). At 55, Meyers has made the kind of movie you'd expect Woody Allen to still be making, if he hadn't retreated from the real world into his annual bouts of ritualistic typing. (Others don't like the movie at all; Michael Atkinson's savage pan in the Village Voice is particularly unhappy. Roger Ebert, closer in age to the characters, is good on both the film's sitcommy complications and its essential virtues.)
Diane Keaton is a divorced, prize-winning playwright whose work is still directed by her ex-husband. She's built her dream beach house for herself, occasionally visited by her sister (acerbic genius Frances McDormand) and thirtyish daughter (Amanda Peet). One weekend, daughter and frisky new (yet older) squeeze (Jack Nicholson) drop in, and sparks fly. Meyers' comedy is wholeheartedly contemporary, the complications between the primary characters fresh and logical rather than contrived, and it may also be the most accomplished set of variations, to my memory, on the romantic comedy genre since, well, Annie Hall. Honest. I still find it hard to believe I can say that. All the way through the movie and afterwards, I struggled to figure out why I liked this movie so much.
But the 63-year-old Jack has a heart attack, and recuperating, he's catapulted into the care of Keaton and local doctor Keanu Reeves (sweet and funny), who has eyes for Keaton, as well as knowing (and loving) her work as a playwright.
Is it Meyers' life? "It's Nancy's movie," Meyers stresses, using the third person. "We're both over 50, we're both writers, we've both have had some success, we both have children. There's similarities, yeah. But I mean, truly, my life is not that fabulous. It's fiction, obviously."
She writes a lively rogue for Jack Nicholson - who concedes he helped with the embroidery - yet there's no distance: it doesn't seem his character's being judged even as he's caught with his pants down (literally, on a couple of occasions). "I really tried in this movie to understand men. I really tried to [get] the Jack character. I was writing charts. When [Keaton and Nicholson] have the argument in the [New York] street [near the end of the movie], after she's found him with the young blood? I actually made a chart. His side, her side. I didn't want to be judgmental, so I gave her a younger boyfriend. I tried to understand his take. He does have a right to have a life. I liked starting where the audience thinks, 'Oh, yeah, yeah, I get it, and oh yeah, it's Jack."
She wrote it for Nicholson. "Oh, yeah. A thousand percent. I heard his voice with every line. He's a great actor. I wanted to write a movie about an older couple who fall in love for the first time, late in life, and I think he's the best actor for that. The fact that he's a well-known bachelor helps the beginning of the movie, but I can't ride through the [entire] movie."
The banter between the characters is heightened by the editing. When they're tossing repartee or flirtation at one another, there's usually a cut from one close-up to another, instead of the sort of long takes favored by stage-trained actors working together. She thinks for a second at this observation. "There's tons of two-shots. But when you get into real nitty-gritty dialogue, you have to be on somebody's single at that time. I shot lots of coverage. Once you get into [cutting] the dialogue, to stay on the two shot, it sort of falls away. But when I have a great two-shot, like when [Keaton and Nicholson] walk on the beach [realizing how much they have in common because of their years of experience], I hold more than any other scene in a movie. Jokes, for me, don't play as well in wide shots. Woody Allen likes to do it, I don't. I like to get in and see> the joke.
"There's a 1970s Allen-like joke in the movie that has great emotional and comic kick. "'I like you' [Nicholson says], 'But I love-you, like-you" [Keaton says]. Yeah, he can't say it. I've seen that look on a guy's face. We've all seen that look, and Jack's made that look. Communication was real clear that night on how to play that scene.
"Why so late in her career, I had to wonder, has Meyers discovered this knack for empathy, this desire to shrug off the corny caricature in all too much of her earlier work? "Ummm... I think in What Women Want, I poked fun of the Mel [Gibson] character a little bit. I tried to show him not being a cad, but insensitive. But I think Jack conducts himself like a gentleman a lot in the movie. He's never a jerk. I didn't want it to go there. But I wanted his life to be real to him. A friend of mine says, everyone's a hero in their own life. So I had to write [the characters each] true to themselves. He's not on the exact same brainwave as her the whole time and causes her pain, but he gets there. Men are slower, you know!" she says, laughing.
"Keanu was a real fantasy," Meyers says of her casting. "When I was writing, I had pictures of Jack and Diane all around my computer and sometimes when I would write the scenes that the doctor was in, I'd go on line, go to people's websites, I'd look at John Cusack or Keanu, then I got into this Keanu Reeves thing. Y'know, he started in comedy, it would be so great to see someone do something they haven't done in a long time. I had dinner with him last night? He's hilarious."
There was some resistance to casting Keaton. "I said, 'What woman over 50 is going to make them line up around the street? These women aren't in the movies that are giant hits, no one puts them in those movies. So let's cast the best person for the job, which is Diane Keaton. It's a comedy, she plays vulnerable better than anybody, she's the right age, she's not had plastic surgery. I wrote it for her, that's the other thing! I sat down and wrote it for her!"