Lots of Seashells
“Uh, hi. Um, I’m here to show you the Hamptons house, which is where a lot of our movie takes place.” Amanda Peet, for some reason, is the designated tour guide for the three-minute “Hamptons House Set Tour,” an extra on Columbia’s DVD of Something’s Gotta Give. The camera pans inside as she narrates: “This is the front hall, and as you can see, it’s very beautiful and very beachy. There are lots of seashells.” Yes, there are.
Peet introduces various crew members (“Andrew is from Australia… He doesn’t even have a green card: run!”) or describes activity (“We’re setting up for… Diane’s legs. What could be better than a shot of Diane Keaton’s legs?”), then describes her nervousness about working with Keaton, the “inimitable France McDormand,” and Jack (“He sat there and smoked, and was very relaxed”). The extra serves no function but to underline the fact that Peet is adorable. It’s not a bad thing to remember when watching the film, which could use more of her. She’s long been under-appreciated—in formula comedy (The Whole Nine Yards and Saving Silverman), independent drama (Igby Goes Down), and thriller (Identity). While each performance is its own little surprise, Peet’s work in Something’s Gotta Give, as Marin, supporting player for her mother’s predictable romance, is especially sharp.
As Marin, she jumpstarts the proceedings: an auctioneer at Christie’s, she begins dating a customer, superwealthy hiphop label executive and renowned young ladies’ man, Harry (Nicholson). When she brings him to her family’s Hamptons house, they run into obstacles. First, her mother, playwright Erica (Keaton), and aunt Zoe (McDormand), note his unsuitability as Marin’s partner. Second, after a dinner punctuated by Columbia women’s studies professor Zoe’s zingy treatise on sexism in romance, Harry suffers a mid-woo heart attack.
The latter event achieves three important ends: 1) no sex between Marin and Harry (so his ensuing tryst with her mother won’t seem so yucky, even though it still is fairly yucky); 2) 63-year-old Harry’s self-evaluation; and 3) Erica’s assignment to nursing duties, as the patient can’t be moved back to the city. Their evolving age-appropriate relationship reveals to Erica the real life (so-called) pain of the love she writes about in her plays. It also introduces Harry to the heretofore foreign concepts of commitment, maturity, and equality, not to mention jealousy, as Erica is simultaneously courted by his own doctor, Julian (Keanu Reeves). That Harry finds these concepts so strange is supposed to make him seem naïve and desirable; but he’s also a self-loving rascal, waiting to be rehabilitated by a “good woman.”
While the formulaic romance is surely burdened by its predictability, it is also buoyed, moment for moment, by Keaton and Nicholson’s frankly delightful performances. Even the goopy stuff (heavy-handed jokes about his blood pressure, jokes about Erica’s lack of a sex life) is mostly tolerable as handled by these agile pros. Still, like other narratives of this sort, once the sparring partners get together, the film has little to say. “Oh my god,” Erica sighs post-coitally, “I do like sex.” Harry adds, punchline-like, “You certainly do.” Or again, he stumbles over confessing that he might have thought of her as a “soul mate,” and she, knowing everything she knows about him, believes he might mean it. The stereotypes reinforced by such instances hardly need another go.
The DVD also includes two commentary tracks, one featuring Nancy Meyers and Nicholson, the other Meyers, Keaton, and producer Bruce Block. On the former, director and star tend to reminisce about the shoot, including lighting choices, the weather, Meyers’ script, the number of cigars that Nicholson smoked during production, and the usefulness of multiple takes (Nicholson asserts, “From a craft point of view, [you can] do whatever comes into your head, because there’s always another take”). Observing the film’s first bedroom scene—where Marin, in her underwear, straddles Harry—Meyers asks Nicholson, “What do you think of Amanda?” His response is concise and correct: “She’s very nervous, and she lets it come through. You believe what her feeling is.”
Nicholson’s comments on the “craft” of acting, the timing of characters’ interactions, and Meyers’ script (which he praises repeatedly) are endearingly detailed and perceptive. He sounds genuinely interested in his work, his costars, and his own image, in a reasonably ironic way; after admitting that he was eager to show his naked butt in the hospital corridor scene, Nicholson snickers at Harry pretending to keep it together as the women rush to assist: “Oooh, he’s got a tingle!” In turn, Meyers observes, rather adoringly, “I am appreciative. Jack’s the king of giving you free ones.”
Good thing, for the conventional script benefits immeasurably from the performers’ subtler hues. Even Reeves is charming and relaxed, and Nicholson rightly observes his “natural graphics” as an actor, comparing him to Gary Cooper. And of course, Keaton is lovely. Nicholson says, “No one else has her accent or her vocal rhythms, no one that you’ve ever heard… When you hear the distinct quality of her voice, it’s like having pretty hair or something.” On the other commentary track, Keaton calls herself “a slob, as an actor,” meaning that she can’t repeat actions so they match from shot to shot (and she opposes her method to Nicholson’s, “so precise, physically”). Meyers suggests that maybe she’s “spontaneous,” instead. “That’s a nicer way of putting it, a euphemism for the problem,” Keaton interjects. “Well,” Meyers says, “We don’t make movies for the script supervisor.”
The film is best when it backs off the cute dialogue and the actors create their own moments. Peet is all fluttery insight when Marin marvels at Harry’s “genius” when she tries to break up with him and he turns it into dumping her. Harry faces a daunting metaphor for his recovered sexual potency—according to Julian, he must be able to climb a nicely sun-bleached wooden staircase on the beach that looms before him, as if to the sky (Meyers and Block remember shooting these few shots for half a day, marveling at Nicholson’s “silent comedy”).
During the first “date” for Erica and Harry, walking on the beach, she deprecates his corny self-image (he likes to “travel light”; on the DVD track, Nicholson puts it this way: “He has cosmetic pretenses about himself”), then finds herself stuck in a situation befitting a Kaufman and Hart character. In this scene, Meyers observes on the commentary track, they “do so much between the words,” that cutting is only a distraction: a two shot of the conversation, increasingly intimate, is unconditionally sweet.
With so much obviously riding on the star turns, it’s perhaps surprising that the smaller bits, by supporting players, are so outstanding. These include Rachel Ticotin’s no-nonsense performance as Harry’s Manhattan ER doctor (whom he sees a few times, and she looks increasingly bored by his bad behavior each visit), and Paul Michael Glaser’s two or three minutes as Erica’s director and ex-husband. He’s also Marin’s father, and inspires her most elaborately emotional and yet self-conscious moments, when she learns of his impending remarriage, to a woman only two years her senior.
Startled and somewhat scared by what her blubbery reaction suggests about her daddy issues, her own initial attraction to Harry, and her lack of poise and strength as compared to Erica, Marin cries, rages, self-reflects, and pulls herself together, nearly simultaneously. This brief scene, acted with and for Erica, reveals again Peet’s range, delicacy, indeed, her Keaton-ish brilliance. “You see that look on your face,” Marin declares, weirdly triumphant when her mother tries to calm her (for how can her mother possibly see this look?), “That’s the gene I didn’t get!”
Unfortunately, when Marin calls out Erica for being too in control, the movie takes her at her word—allowing Erica to go on and on with her crying and her self-berating in subsequent scenes. These extend the running time over several potential endings, which is to say, it goes on and on as well. Romantic comedies are all about delivering to expectations: no surprises. At the same time, they work best with taut structure and spare explications of motive: you get in and out quickly, without feeling fatigued by the inescapable fact that you know exactly what’s going to happen.