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Love among the ruins

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Just two years ago, Innocence, an Australian film directed by Paul Cox, dramatized the unusual possibility (unusual for cinema anyway) of a sexual relationship between two elderly people, who renew the love of their vanished youth with a genuine and touching passion.

          In contrast to that quiet, bittersweet romance, conducted within the context of an acknowledged mortality, Nancy Meyers' Something's Gotta Give exploits the comedy in a roughly similar situation, in effect playing the potentially melancholy material almost entirely for laughs.

          The differences between the two movies suggest a good deal about the Hollywood treatment of such an unorthodox but entirely plausible subject. American film tends, for good or for bad, to turn delicate and occasionally painful matters into something slick and even ridiculous, perhaps even the tendency of Americans to prefer hopeful illusion to grim reality.

          The picture stars two mature actors playing people roughly their own age, something of a refreshing departure from the common practice of older actors, often assisted by chemistry or surgery, pretending to be young. Jack Nicholson plays Harry Sanborn, a wealthy bachelor of the Donald Trump-Michael Bloomberg variety. He is known in the gossip columns for his penchant for beautiful young women --- he boasts that he never dates anyone under 30. As the picture opens, he and his latest companion, a lissome lovely named Marin Barry (Amanda Peet), who perfectly fits Sanborn's age requirements, arrive at her divorced mother's splendid place in the Hamptons for a romantic summer weekend.

          Since the ancient rules of comedy specify that such an idyll must perforce suffer some unexpected interruption, Marin's mother, Erica (Diane Keaton), a successful playwright, shows up, along with her sister, a professor of women's studies at Columbia (Frances McDormand). Although embarrassed at being caught in his underwear in Keaton's kitchen, Nicholson displays some of the sangfroid and good humor that, along with his money, apparently account for his success with the ladies.

          Charmed despite themselves and their analysis of what they regard as his deficient personality, the two sisters almost enjoy his company. When he suffers a heart attack, however, and must recuperate for a spell in the Hamptons, Nicholson turns into something like the man who came to dinner, except that as anyone can predict, he will eventually gratify other sorts of appetites in Keaton's house.

          The forced propinquity leads to a few farcical episodes, including Nicholson's inadvertently stumbling into Keaton's room just as she has stripped for a shower, as well as some acerbic byplay in a Hollywood tradition of wisecracking antagonism that dates back to the 1930s. Keaton also encounters the handsome young doctor who treats Nicholson (Keanu Reeves). The doctor admires her plays, finds her desirable, showers her with compliments, and takes her out to dinner. Following another ancient rule of romantic comedy, her relationship with Reeves becomes one of those familiar comic obstacles to the correct couple finally connecting.

          The major reversal of the comic situation derives simply from the age of the two principals. In traditional romantic comedy, the parental figures often impede the progress of true love, disapproving of one or another young person's choice of mate. Comedy, after all, deals with the triumph of youth over age, of innocence over experience, of the future over the past. Demonstrating that it is a work for this time, Something's Gotta Give reverses that antique concept, so that eventually, despite various impediments, especially the presence of Keaton's young swain, the two correct people, the man and woman of a certain age, do indeed get together.

          The movie's characterization and action depend in part on Nicholson's extensive sexual experience --- one of the sillier sequences shows him making a pilgrimage to all his past loves to apologize for his insensitivity or something, and as a sign of the times, Viagra plays an important part in his life.

          At the same time, the picture also attempts to deal with Keaton's sexual reawakening. Both frightened and thrilled at the prospect of sex after some years, she happily discovers that, as she says, it all still works and, as Nicholson assures her, works very well. Predictably --- and very little in the film is not entirely predictable --- her sexuality finally triumphs over Nicholson's promiscuity, and love blossoms along with lust, bringing the two together at last and for good.

          Once again Jack Nicholson demonstrates a sure comic touch, using his whiny nasal voice, his Gothic eyebrows, and now, his increased girth with delicate timing and a real sense of fun. Divested of most of the annoying tics, twitches, shrugs, and squints that she apparently acquired at the Sandy Dennis Academy of Acting, Diane Keaton most of the time manages to hold her own against the force of Nicholson and the character he plays.

          For unclear reasons, a drumbeat of rumor, no doubt generated by the usual percussionists, suggests that Keaton will win an Academy Award nomination for the part. That rumor amounts to the same sort of hype that surrounds the whole movie. After all, it is a slick, entertaining, lightweight piece of work, intermittently funny, and entirely mechanical from start to finish.

Something's Gotta Give, starring Jack Nicholson, Diane Keaton, Amanda Peet, Frances McDormand, Keanu Reeves, Jon Favreau, Paul Michael Glaser; written and directed by Nancy Meyers. Cinemark Tinseltown, Hoyts Greece Ridge, Loews Webster, Pittsford Plaza Cinema, Regal Culver Ridge, Regal Eastview, Regal Henrietta.

You can hear George and his movie reviews on WXXI-FM 91.5 Fridays at 7:20 a.m., rerun on Saturdays at 8:50 a.m.

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