No doubt, there’s something intriguing about seeing Jason Isaacs in a dress—a little green sequined number—given that his last U.S. movie outing was as the awful British colonel chasing down Mel Gibson in “The Patriot.” But delightful as it may be to see the ever-engaging Isaacs just so, it doesn’t go nearly far enough to excuse sitting through the rest of Sweet November.
The problem is not that Isaacs isn’t wonderful, because he is, as well as funny and sharp. The problem is that he’s playing Chad, the Gay Neighbor character. Chad is carefully designed as a way to “flesh out” the irresistibly quirky and delectable Sara Deever (Charlize Theron). Silly me—I had imagined that the Gay Neighbor was already passe. But here he comes again, a device most useful in movie romances (or even thrillers—recall the Gay Neighbor in “Single White Female”), as support and offset for his zany gal pal, so that she looks positively wonderful next to him, open-minded and generous, yes, but also relatively conventional (that is, straight), properly attractive in her dresses and properly behaved compared to him. Then again, the Gay Neighbor may actually be the least cliched element in this particular movie, which lifts from many sources, ranging from old Bette Davis movies to Love Story, where women are sacrificed so that their men might learn important life lessons.
Perhaps most unfortunately, Sweet November is opening just months after last year’s woeful Autumn in New York—the two movies’ plots are so similar that you might be forgiven if you worry that maybe the makers of Sweet November aren’t getting out enough. But I’m exaggerating, of course. In Autumn, Winona Ryder had no Gay Neighbor. And Sara doesn’t make ugly hats.
Rather, Sara is some kind of animal person. She has a van with dogs painted on it, and I think she grooms pets, or walks them, or saves them from the street and finds them new homes. This is essentially her plan for Nelson Moss (Keanu Reeves), whom she meets when they’re taking a test to renew their drivers’ licenses and he tries to cheat off her but she gets busted instead. Unable to drive her van and furious with him for being such a jerk, she nags him until he agrees to give her a few rides around town for the month until she can take her test again. Why she decides to adopt and fix Nelson is a little unclear, except that he is so plainly in need… of something.
Nelson is an egomaniacal, money-obsessed advertising exec (sort of the same guy Nicolas Cage played in The Family Man), established in Sweet November‘s first few moments as a jerk of gargantuan proportions: rude, careless, and mean to his co-workers and his girlfriend. It doesn’t take long before he’s fired and dumped, turns of fortune that leave him vulnerable to Sara’s charms. These include her quaint wardrobe (she wears scarves, big sweaters, little dresses, and clunky boots, rather like Drew Barrymore in Mad Love) and just-too-adorable game-playing (she blindfolds Nelson in her apartment and giggles when he falls over the furniture). That said, it’s clear in that Hollywood way that her charms are primarily based on the fact that she is glamour girl Charlize Theron in thrift-store drag—stunningly beautiful meets endearingly peculiar.
One of Sara’s enchanting idiosyncrasies is that she takes in lost men for a month each and transforms their lives (apparently, sex with her is amazing!). Nelson, she informs him, is “November.” Soon enough—and quite ridiculously—this grumpy guy falls in love with her and decides to change his life to be compatible with hers. At this point, the expected other shoe drops, and Sara informs Nelson that she can’t marry him. You’ve seen this much in the trailer, where she’s looking very pale, red-eyed, and ill as she says this, and thankfully, the advertising campaign has not been coy about the film’s basis in tragedy. It appears that the central lesson to be learned by Nelson, before he can go on his way after a month of sex and eating ice cream with Sara, has to do with having respect for one another person’s choices. Unfortunately, there are quite a few more cliche moments to get through before that lesson is complete. Though director Pat O’Connor has revealed a light touch in the past (in 1995’s Circle of Friends), this film is more on the order of 1997’s Inventing the Abbotts, perhaps less unwieldy but equally predictable.
Sweet November must overlook that Sara’s own choices actually do affect other people—say, Chad, who is painfully loyal as can be—in order to make you feel all right that these choices are all about Nelson’s life education. And as we know all too well, there’s nothing like a dying girlfriend to teach men a thing or two about priorities. One sign of Nelson’s learning curve is that he decides to quit hanging out with his colleague and supposed best friend, Vince (Ally McBeal‘s Greg Germann, typecast as a sniveling weasel-guy), and tells a super-rich snoot/potential new employer (Frank Langella, only wasting his time in one scene) that he “doesn’t like” him. Nelson’s moment of transformation is as corny as they come—as he lays down his napkin and strides valiantly from the upscale restaurant where he’s offended the rich snoot, the camera looks up at him: he looks so tall and free and grand!
His decision to dedicate himself to a happy, loving life with Sara reflects all those solid “values” dispensed by mainstream media as “natural” and “right.” The fact that Nelson can only make such a decision because he is wealthy enough to not have to work for a while—a long while—is only incidental. He’s a better man because of his love for this quirky girl, who is, it turns out, just a means to that end.