Weep, and the World Laughs Hysterically
by A. O. Scott
About two-thirds of the way through ''Something's Gotta Give,'' Diane Keaton bursts into tears. Her character, a divorced, middle-aged playwright named Erica Barry, has seen her quiet life of professional fulfillment and romantic disappointment unexpectedly disrupted by love and then, in short order, by heartbreak. Erica's sobs, sniffles and wails seem endless and uncontrollable, expressing every conceivable combination of hurt, humiliation and anger. Her crying jag, which seems to last for several months, continues without interruption through a half-dozen cuts and scene changes, carrying Erica through nearly every room in her large, airy East Hampton beach house.
But ''Something's Gotta Give,'' which opens nationwide today, is a comedy. At the sneak preview I attended last week, the harder Erica cried, the harder the audience laughed, which I might have found disturbing if I had not been laughing so helplessly myself.
This mirth was not cruel or derisive; it was instead an odd but nonetheless apt measure of the audience's sympathy and affection for Erica and a tribute to Ms. Keaton's unparalleled comic skill. Nobody else working in movies today can make her own misery such a source of delight or make the spectacle of utter embarrassment look like a higher form of dignity. Erica is by turns prickly, indecisive, uptight, vulnerable, self-assured and skittish: traits Ms. Keaton blends into a performance that is at once entirely coherent and dizzyingly unpredictable.
The smash hit play Erica eventually writes -- her delicious revenge on the man who caused her such pain -- is called ''A Woman to Love,'' which would have been a much better title for this unusually satisfying comic romance than the empty and generic one it has. Erica lifts the phrase from one of her two suitors, a smooth-faced, star-struck young doctor named Julian, played in tongue-in-cheek Ralph Bellamy deadpan by Keanu Reeves. The movie is built around the wonderful and entirely persuasive conceit that both Mr. Reeves and Jack Nicholson could find themselves hopelessly smitten with an intelligent and accomplished woman in her 50's.
Mr. Nicholson plays Harry Sanborn, a rich, 62-year-old bachelor who has devoted his life to philosophy: the Playboy Philosophy, circa 1966. Harry prides himself on never having dated a woman over 30, and at the start of the movie his babe of the moment is Erica's daughter, Marin (Amanda Peet).
Mr. Nicholson may not, strictly speaking, be playing himself, but he seems to have prepared for the role by studying a few decades' worth of interviews and magazine profiles celebrating his unapologetic libertinism. And if his casting is an obvious joke, it is nonetheless a good one, thanks to his devilish combination of high-spirited rakishness and old-school gallantry.
After suffering a heart attack during a bit of hanky panky with Marin, Harry finds himself under Erica's reluctant care, stranded in her house, where the rules of bedroom farce are strictly enforced. Logy and disoriented, Harry stumbles into Erica's bedroom and sees her naked, an event that casts an awkward pall over their relationship as well as foreshadowing its eventual consummation.
''Something's Gotta Give'' was written and directed by Nancy Meyers, who has, from ''Private Benjamin'' to ''What Women Want,'' demonstrated a thorough, if not always breathtakingly original, flair for the conventions of mainstream quasi-feminist comedy. She and Ms. Keaton have worked together before, in the yuppie crisis comedy ''Baby Boom'' and the retrofitted ''Father of the Bride'' pictures, in which Ms. Keaton was unimaginatively relegated to the role of Steve Martin's patient wife and obliging straight man.
''Something's Gotta Give,'' true to form, does not really depart from the genial, sentimental formulas of its genre. Some of the jokes are flat, and some scenes that should sparkle with screwball effervescence sputter instead. But what Ms. Meyers lacks in inventiveness she makes up for in generosity, to the actors and therefore to the audience.
Mr. Nicholson and Ms. Keaton -- last seen together, in rather different circumstances, as Eugene O'Neill and Louise Bryant in Warren Beatty's ''Reds'' -- spar with the freedom of professionals with nothing left to prove, and Mr. Nicholson has the gentlemanly grace to step aside and let Ms. Keaton claim the movie. She in turn brings out the best in everyone around her. Mr. Reeves, liberated from the Matrix and the burden of being the One, mocks his own mellow blandness but conveys his character's ardor for Erica without the slightest hint of facetiousness.
Frances McDormand, as Erica's sister, a professor of women's studies, sidesteps the temptations of caricature and tosses off some of the movie's funniest lines. Ms. Peet, zany and appealing in an underwritten role, continues her steady, zigzagging growth into one of the most interesting (and, by this critic at least, often underestimated) young actresses around. If she keeps it up, she could be the next Diane Keaton.
Which, as of this writing, is about the highest praise I can confer. After Erica's tears have dried, she and the audience are rewarded with a giddy, Lubitschean third act, which swirls through Manhattan and the Caribbean before touching down -- but of course -- in Paris for a sweetly predictable denouement. If Erica's distress makes you laugh, her richly deserved joy might just bring a tear to your eye.
Julian had it right: she is a woman to love. ''You're incredibly sexy,'' he says to her at one point.
''I swear to God, I'm not,'' she replies.
I swear to God, she's wrong.
Correction: December 18, 2003, Thursday A film review of the romantic comedy ''Something's Gotta Give'' in Weekend on Friday misattributed the dialogue's description of Erica (Diane Keaton) as ''a woman to love.'' The character who says it is Harry (Jack Nicholson), not Julian (Keanu Reeves).