Keanu Reeves and Charlize Theron's Contrived Sweet November

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When Sweet November was first made in 1968, it commented on that era's free love and promiscuity by turning it into schmaltz. Sandy Dennis played a young woman who only keeps lovers a month at a time as a means of assuaging her terminal illness. (She wasn't loose but liberated and practical.) Bringing back this awkward, soggy tale might have been justifiable if the filmmakers found its resonance in contemporary sexual practices. A credible new twist would involve a protagonist whose serial monogamy wasn't just accepted habit but also revealed some deep, mortal fear?perhaps a gay protagonist.

My guess is that the makers of the new Sweet November were somewhat aware of this. In the current adaptation of Herman Raucher's original script, the explanation for the doomed girl (now played by Charlize Theron) is, "If she can't live a normal life, she'll live the best abnormal life possible." Consider that this rationale is spoken by her downstairs neighbor, a competitive businessman-cum-fierce drag queen who is also the dying girl's confidante. But this gutless Hollywood venture doesn't respect audiences enough to confide in their knowledge about romantic insecurities, or even admit that homosexual love life can be as conflicted as any other. The drag queen (played by Jason Isaacs) is securely if blandly paired off?a form of political correctness designed to detract from Hollywood's basic contempt for ("abnormal") homosexuality.

I'm not advocating for another covert gay melodrama like Joel Schumacher's abominable Dying Young. (It would have to be called Dying Dumb.) But while trying to figure out a plausible reason why a studio would remake a story this treacly, it occurred to me that even if a gay remake of Sweet November said something undoubtedly maudlin about the AIDS era, it might still have been respectable, up-to-date (the same way the original film jerked tears about the morality of its era). As it is, Sweet November reflects no particular contemporary manners or social awareness, just the filmmakers' shamelessness. Evidently, they are more concerned with following the box-office formula of City of Angels than making a movie that might relate in fresh and interesting ways to modern life.

Being out of touch is part of the Hollywood tradition of selling escapism. And because people are accustomed to this form of condescension (as suggested by readers deliberately mistaking the point of my Wedding Planner review), I'll try to be precise about the cultural problem represented by Sweet November's otherwise sappy, conventional love story: it reinforces the narrow, biased thinking?the hegemony?that keeps Hollywood from making movies about nonwhite, nonheterosexual relationships. You can see the hard-hearted (and hardheaded) evidence in the way recent movies that promote a heterosexual agenda are extolled over better, more imaginative films. (Almodovar's pallid All About My Mother was acclaimed, while Patrice Chereau's superior Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train was ignored. Billy Elliot's closeted capering was endorsed to the neglect of a more sensible gay identification in Beautiful Thing.)

A love story as contrived as Sweet November (or The Wedding Planner) does nothing for society's understanding of its variety, complexity?or even our own romantic sentiments. It's best to seek out a sexual, ethnic, class alternative, because to endorse these kinds of status-quo love stories is pointless; it's like living by greeting cards. If each era has a distinct approach to love, commitment, the sense of how people now choose to pursue their desires, then we need specific examples of how, not more Barbie-doll mock-ups.

Pretty as they are, Charlize Theron and Keanu Reeves (as her November playmate) wind up banal?another Hollywood love match few people can identify with. Reeves plays a cynical, insensitive advertising executive. We're meant to think he needs a vacation to mellow out, but in typical Hollywood exaggeration, his dehumanizing, workaholic lifestyle is full of bling-blinging?sex, fine clothes and a sleek automobile. The story of his falling in love with Theron's wealthy dotcom eccentric essentially gives him a vacation from what most people might already consider a vacation. And the setup?she stalks him?makes the woman's whimsical kookiness seem psychotic.

This gimmick could only be worse if Meg Ryan played it. It would then be annoying, whereas Reeves and Theron are amiably vacant mannequins for heterosexual fantasy. There's no resisting Reeves when, in a cab full of flowers, he pulls up alongside a lovely girl and hands her a bouquet. Theron's plumb-cheeked sexiness almost makes her kook believable: she plays pranks and tosses scarves with mounting desperation. When haggard she looks like Ashley Judd; mostly she's just radiantly adorable. But, to invoke The Wedding Planner again, none of this cuteness gets close to recognizing the modern practical view of romance you can hear in Jennifer Lopez's "Love Don't Cost a Thing," Mya's "Free," Destiny's Child's "Independent Woman" and TLC's "No Scrubs"?all pop songs enunciating a contemporary female approach to loving and being. When the token drag queen further explains Sweet November's contrivance ("These rules, they've kept her alive") you realize how unexamined cultural rules and lack of imagination keep producing movies this wack.

Sweet November gives one a sense of Hollywood's allegiance to the white imagination; fantasizing that has depleted itself. The paucity is exposed at the moment Reeves stands on a quaint, multiculti San Francisco street corner and gets the revelation, "I want you, I want this life." It's a hollow affirmation?the very thing Sweet November's desperate search for love was meant to transcend. But the filmmakers' limited imaginations leave them stranded in a motley world they make no attempt to address or understand. Surely, that's the underlying message of Robert Zemeckis' admirable Cast Away, a film that attempts to rethink man's reason for being. It went at love as something deeper than romance, which Sweet November does not.

Cast Away was also better at existentialism, depicting untold opportunities available in immeasurable time. Note the break in the title. As the super-efficient FedEx honcho, Tom Hanks is deprived of the minute details that structure his life, even the affection that is his back-burner anchor. He's forced to find out who he is minus the things that he has used to define himself. It's a serious film about loss and the search for purpose in the contemporary Western world. Back home, Hanks is forced to reevaluate what his life has been?or might be. Director Zemeckis brings vision and concentration to the concept. For a short time earlier this year that audiences responded to Cast Away, it looked like there was hope for a thoughtful, emotional American cinema. Now Sweet November comes along to clog up the culture's arteries, tempting viewers to stop thinking about who?and where?they are.

That small moment of Reeves at the crossroads (a presentiment of the film's ending) is paltry compared to the epic risk Zemeckis took in giving Cast Away bookend sequences that, like Saving Private Ryan, elevate the movie to a profound level. This moral positioning?giving the story a philosophical longitude and latitude?went beyond adventure film, Robinson Crusoe-type genre, to challenge the very nature of movie romanticism. We stand at the crossroads along with Hanks. It's an intelligent Hollywood film with an existential viewpoint?the rarest kind of prestige product. Sweet November's also an A-level production; and Pat O'Connor, forced to follow formula, achieves his most competent, smooth-paced direction. Plus cinematographer Ed Lachman shoots the San Francisco locations with startling depth of field, as if there were actually a world to be seen (Steven Soderbergh needed Lachman's eye on Traffic). Sorry fact is, Sweet November's vision lacks insight.

Down to Earth
Directed by Paul and Chris Weitz

Confusion: First Warren Beatty remade the Robert Montgomery vehicle Here Comes Mr. Jordan but gave it the title of Ernst Lubitsch's Heaven Can Wait. Now Chris Rock remakes the Beatty vehicle but gives it the title of the Rita Hayworth musical Down to Earth.

More Confusion: Susan Kohner made movie history playing a black girl in the 1959 Imitation of Life; now in Down to Earth her sons, Paul and Chris Weitz (of the slob-frat comedy American Pie) make their second lousy movie imitating black ethnic comedy.

Down to Earth is an imitation of ethnic comedy because Chris Rock has yet to find himself as a movie star. Playing a would-be stand-up comic who dies prematurely?before winning a big Apollo Amateur Night contest?and then is sent back to Earth, Rock coasts on the confidence he has developed doing his lame routines. No doubt he has a much more likable presence here than in Lethal Weapon 4 and Nurse Betty (his performance in the latter might be the worst on-screen by anybody?ever!), but what this movie jokes about is never down-to-earth, recognizable or universally funny.

Rock's talk-show sidekick Wanda Sykes is always a kick in the pants. She plays the maid to Rock's reincarnated tycoon. Sykes' specialty is to look like she's trying to discern a whiff of urine from ammonia (while her high-pitched down-home voice suggests a dose of helium). Another updated stereotype, but in Sykes' case, raucously viable. As for Rock and the Weitzes, Down to Earth isn't a movie. It's just a career move.

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