Sara is quirky and free-spirited. That, at least, is the premise of the hilariously wretched new weepie Sweet November, of which Sara, embodied by the breathtaking Charlize Theron, is the heroine.
But if you're smart enough to run in terror at the threat of a movie character who's quirky and free-spirited, have no fear. The evidence offered of said quirkdom and unfettered soul is pretty thin. Roughly, it's this: She likes dogs! She lives in a cute apartment decorated with little Buddha statues! She's friends with the drag queens downstairs! She prefers romping on the beach or in the park to slaving away in the workaday world!
And this woman lives in San Francisco. In San Francisco, what I've just described is a Republican, right?
It's sort of sad, when you think about it -- exactly how does one go about creating an off-the-wall romantic heroine whose antics don't, in this day and age, seem pitifully tame? Even back in 1972, Barbra Streisand drove Ryan O'Neal nutty in Peter Bogdanovich's What's Up, Doc? with behavior that seems sociopathic compared to Sara's.
Of course, we aren't talking screwball comedy here. Sweet November is serious drama, buster. This remake of the like-titled 1968 Sandy Dennis vehicle concerns how Sara meets-cute Nelson, a driven hotshot advertising man who has the snazzy apartment and the snazzier girlfriend and the snappy clothes and the rotten friend/business partner, à la Richard Gere in Pretty Woman. After a goofy episode or two, Sara proposes to Nelson that he move in with her for a relationship lasting one calendar month, during which he gets to sleep with her -- and let her run his life -- but after which they'll part with no hard feelings.
Sara has had this sort of relationship before -- she offers to let Nelson "be my November." She flatly states that he should agree to this because he needs her; she alone is a blithe enough spirit to save him from the plastic corporate world that was killing his soul, and all that. After some initial resistance, Nelson agrees. In the course of the month, however, he learns her secret agenda -- and this is in the trailers and TV ads, so no whining that it's a "spoiler" -- breezy Sara is too good for this world. She's sick, Ali MacGraw-style, and her unconventional love life is her way of avoiding ever getting so close to anyone that they'll see her die.
The ineptitude arises mostly from the script by Kurt Voelker -- it may just have the worst-written romantic dialogue in a big-studio movie since 1999's Simply Irresistible. The hilarity is provided by Keanu Reeves, God bless him, who plays Nelson. The film rises to the level of premium camp at least three times, and it's Reeves who gets it there each time.
The first is the scene in which Nelson presents a hyper-Freudian campaign proposal to the honchos of a hot dog company. Reeves struggles so hard to strut that it adds another, unintentional layer of overcompensation-for-inadequacy to this already funny sequence. In the other jaw-dropper, he crashes Sara's Thanksgiving dinner in a Santa suit, bearing a sack of gifts, having thoughtfully realized that, in light of her condition, Sara should probably enjoy a holiday two-fer. And nobody could give the line, "My third eye didn't open" -- Nelson to Sara after a montage-romp -- quite as sidesplitting a reading as Reeves does.
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The director is Pat O'Connor, of the overrated 1994 Irish romantic comedy Circle of Friends. He handles the material smoothly enough, and the gifted cinematographer Ed Lachman, of Erin Brockovich and The Virgin Suicides, handles the undemanding duty of making Theron, and the Bay Area, look great. Jason Isaacs, the villain in The Patriot, does what he can as one of the drag queens, but Greg Germann, who can be a riot as the skunky Richard Fish on Ally McBeal, is left floundering with nothing funny to say as Nelson's creepy crony.
Then there's Liam Aiken as the neglected kid from across the street whom Nelson befriends, even arranging a radio-controlled submarine, complete with sonar bleeps, to take out his competition in a toy-sailboat race. Presenting Nelson at a father-son day, the kid says: "We do stuff together, and it's fun, 'cause he makes me feel smart." No doubt.
But while it's easy -- and appropriate -- to mock Keanu Reeves, he gets the last laugh, because no matter how you slice it, he's a movie star. He always has been. In no way does this contradict the popular opinion that he's a bad actor. His effective turns in Dangerous Liaisons and Speed and Sam Raimi's recent The Gift notwithstanding, he's a terrible actor. Even at his best, he gives the impression of a man trying to think through molasses, and in Sweet November he's at his formidable worst. But the movie would be unwatchable without him. He's far more truly a movie star than Charlize Theron, who, in addition to being one of the most astonishing movie beauties in years, can really act. Yet somehow she isn't fascinating when she's onscreen in the way that only a true star can be -- the way that Reeves is, even if that fascination is of the train-wreck variety.
Indeed, it could be said that Reeves is one of the great manifestations of the mysteriousness of stardom. He gives the worst performance in Sweet November, and he's the best thing about it.