JACK'S NOT SO NIMBLE ANYMORE

RICK GROEN

SOMETHING'S GOTTA GIVE

Directed and written by Nancy Meyers
Starring Jack Nicholson, Diane Keaton, Keanu Reeves
Classification: PG
Rating: **

He's a playboy, she's a playwright. He's sixtysomething, and dating beauties less than half his age. She's fiftysomething, and not dating at all. He's Jack Nicholson, who once upon a time was an Easy Rider. She's Diane Keaton, who long ago was Annie Hall. How much time, how long ago, can be roughly measured by the movie's matched set of money shots: an extended peek at Nicholson's naked behind, followed a bit later by a fleeting glimpse of Keaton's naked front. In this battle of the better halves, my admittedly biased judgment is that her front emerges as the clear winner. In fact, pressed to identify the something that gives in Something's Gotta Give, my vote goes to his behind: It sags badly.

All the rest is a romance comedy of the type favoured by writer-director Nancy Meyers, who, from her script for Private Benjamin to her remakes of Father of the Bride, has never met a laugh she couldn't reduce to a formula. Here, the formula is pitched to a demographic not usually served by the amorous genre: aging boomers. If you've just had the prescription upped on your second pair of reading glasses, then this cinematic sight is definitely meant for your sore eyes. And if you've caught the picture's ubiquitous trailer, then don't worry about showing up late, because you've already seen the entire first act.

Just to be safe, here's a quick reminder. A wealthy record mogul, Harry (Nicholson), is squiring about his latest young lovely (Amanda Peet), who invites him for a dirty weekend at her mom's sumptuous beach house in the Hamptons. Apparently unaware that the theatre is dead, mother Erica (Keaton) writes Broadway plays of a type that would have been the envy of the wags at the Algonquin roundtable. Similarly naive, the screenplay makes her rich enough from her anachronistic labours to own that sumptuous beach house in the Hamptons. Fine-looking digs, though, very screen-friendly.

Anyway, when mama pops up unexpectedly, banter ensues. He, defending his hip-hop label: "Some people see rap as poetry." She: "Yeah, like, how many words can you rhyme with bitch?" Before we can make the count, and primed by a hefty dose of Viagra, Harry retreats to the bedroom with the intent of shagging the daughter, but his heart literally breaks from the excitement. Rushed to the hospital, he and his ticker somehow survive the further shock that the attending physician is played by Keanu Reeves, aka Neo, aka the ever-comatose One. Naturally, being a sophisticated thirtysomething, the good doctor Keanu falls for the elder Erica, leaving director Meyers to dabble in her latest bit of pop geometry -- old guy, young gal, old gal, young guy. Hey, it's a love quadrangle. Of course, with the beach house now converted into a convalescent home, sparks -- or at least embers -- begin to fly between the sick playboy and the sensitive playwright. They discover such mutual interests as eyewear, sleep deprivation, milk-fed snacks and, in the shallows of that flinty soil, romance blooms -- and withers and blooms and withers. During one of the growth cycles, the two kiss, prompting perhaps the most attenuated sex scene in screen history. It's the rare coitus that gets interruptus by a thorough blood-pressure check, punctuated by this informative exchange. He: "What about birth control?" She: "Menopause." He: "Who's the lucky guy!" That punchline is vintage Nicholson, delivered complete with leer, and he takes the picture as close to a belly laugh as it gets.

Too bad there's still almost two acts to go and more than two hours to the finish. In that sense, if nowhere else, the comedy is perfectly geared to the boomer crowd: The thing's paced like a half-marathon ambled at a tepid jog. Lacking enough real complications to sustain the plot, Meyers pads with contrived impediments and fifth-business filler. En route, the great Frances McDormand is wasted in a minuscule cameo. So is the equally great cinematographer, Michael Ballhaus, who seems perversely content to light Keaton more harshly than Nicholson. If the lines in the script were as keenly etched as the ones in her face, Keaton would have had something to work with. Instead, during an especially lovelorn sequence, she's asked to indulge in a crying montage so painfully extended that it has us in tears too -- weeping from embarrassment for her.

Give him a rounded role, as Alexander Payne did in About Schmidt, and Nicholson can still act. But cast him merely as a cog in a comedy factory, and he'll revert to his bad old habits. Here, the generous might argue that he's updating his retired astronaut from Terms of Endearment, a coot in a different barrel but the same pickle. The rest of us will conclude that Jack is just playing Jack, and not very enthusiastically at that. With a few exceptions, his performance is as weak-hearted as his character.

Oh, I forgot to mention that Erica is using her midlife misadventures in amour as fodder for her latest theatrical venture, which opens to rave reviews. Turns out "it's wonderful, it's sweet, it's smart, it's funny." Wow, a play that good would make a terrific movie -- damned mingy of her not to share it with us.


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