Someday, Amanda Peet will find a great role in a great film. Until then, she’s showing her diverse talents in a string of imperfect films, from formula comedy (The Whole Nine Yards and Saving Silverman) to quirky independent drama (Igby Goes Down) to headcase thriller (Identity), and now, a “romantic comedy for adults,” Something’s Gotta Give. While each performance is its own little surprise, Peet’s work as Marin, supporting player for her mother’s romance, is especially sharp.
Unfortunately, what happens around her is wholly predictable, sometimes obnoxiously so. This despite promotional blurbs that suggest the “adult” concept makes Something’s Gotta Give something new. Marin jumpstarts the proceedings. An auctioneer at Christie’s, she begins dating a customer, superwealthy record label executive and renowned young ladies’ man, Harry (Jack Nicholson). When she brings him to her family’s Hamptons beach house, they run into obstacles. First, her mother, playwright Erica (Diane Keaton), and aunt Zoe (Frances McDormand), note his unsuitability as Marin’s partner. And 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 creep, waiting to be rehabilitated by a “good woman.” Sigh.
While the formulaic romance is surely burdened by its predictability, it is also buoyed by Keaton and Nicholson’s frankly delightful performances. Even the goopy stuff (heavy-handed jokes about his blood pressure, her weeping bouts when he inevitably acts out badly) is mostly tolerable as handled by these light-touch pros. Likely, the heaped-on kudos for these performances — Keaton has already won the National Board of Review’s Award for Best Actress — will drown out any concerns about the movie’s internal depreciation. That is, much like other narratives of this sort, once the sparring partners get together, it 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.
Erica and Harry’s sparring is assisted by a script that grants all players scant bits of witty dialogue and/or aching insights (all players save Keanu, who turns in a decent performance, despite his character’s necessary lifelessness — you need to want Erica to like Harry instead of this pretty boy). Marin marvels at Harry’s “genius” when she tries to break up with him and he turns it into dumping her; Erica deprecates Harry’s corny self-image (he likes to “travel light”), then finds herself stuck in a situation befitting a Kaufman and Hart character; and 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.
With so much obviously riding on the stars and their 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, and indeed, her Keaton-like brilliance. “You see that look on your face,” Marin declares, weirdly triumphant when her mother tries to calm her, “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. Something’s Gotta Give overstays its welcome, yes, but worse, it pretends like it’s news when it isn’t.