Acting Her Age

Pebble For Your Thoughts? Frances McDormand and Diane Keaton in Something's Gotta Give.Photo: Bob Marshak

Diane Keaton is so rarely in movies anymore that seeing her in even the half-baked Something’s Gotta Give is a blessing. As Erica, a long-divorced Broadway playwright who is having trouble with her new opus, she seems to be relishing her ample screen time as much as we are; her goosey comic style lets us know that Erica, successful as she is, doesn’t take herself too seriously. If you’re a movie star—and Keaton, in terms of the impression she leaves, most certainly still is one—a little self-deprecation can go a long way. It frees you up to capture those squiggly, intuitive character moments that the divas never achieve.

Blame Keaton’s slowdown on the insidious Actress Over 50 syndrome. (Actually, it’s more like Over 30; any minute now, producers will be reckoning Reese Witherspoon a bit long in the tooth.) Rather than play supporting roles or go to the killer effort of developing one’s own, often unbankable projects, some of Hollywood’s finest actresses have, in varying degrees, opted out of the game. (Debra Winger is the most alarming example.) By appearing in Something’s Gotta Give, which was written and directed by Nancy Meyers (What Women Want), Keaton is at least taking on material that confronts ageism, even if the confrontation has all the impact of a pillow fight. Her co-star is Jack Nicholson, whose satyr eyebrows usually do their dance for women half his age. Here he’s playing Harry Sanborn, a never-married hip-hop record-label tycoon who is romancing Erica’s daughter, Marin (Amanda Peet). In an attempt to soft-pedal the material’s inherent smarminess, Meyers makes it clear that these two are not yet sleeping together. When Harry ends up in bed with Erica instead, Marin approves. Just your typical mother-daughter relationship.

What’s more, it takes a coronary for Harry to hook up with Erica. Recuperating in her Hamptons beach house, he finds himself alone with her. They take seaside walks, laughing all the way, picking up pebbles. Erica’s brainy sister, Zoe (Frances McDormand in a too-small cameo), thinks Harry’s “got something,” and pretty soon he and Erica are making pancakes and whoopee. The kicker is that, while all this is going on, Erica is being seriously wooed by Harry’s doctor, Julian (Keanu Reeves), whose total fixation on her makes you suspect he’s a gigolo. But no: He’s in the movie so we can see that, for a change, the older woman can entrance the younger guy and give a randy codger like Harry his comeuppance. This subplot isn’t very convincing, but that has less to do with the actors’ age disparity than with the fact that Keanu Reeves still seems to be caught in the Matrix. He’s so cooled out he’s practically holographic.

Except for briefly in Reds, Keaton and Nicholson have never worked together, and, in a sense, they still haven’t. They look great side by side, but Meyers puts them through so much middling slapstick it’s like they’re auditioning for a Fox sitcom. They never settle into an easy rhythm because Meyers doesn’t trust quietness or subtlety. (And both actors can be plenty soulful.) This is the kind of comedy that relies on such visual punch lines as a shot of Nicholson’s bare ass in a hospital gown. The heart-tug moments are equally blatant: We are supposed to see that Erica’s passion for Harry enables her to experience what she once only wrote about; Harry the reformed playboy declares that, at last, he gets what love is all about.

And yet, Keaton at times manages to convert Meyers’s penchant for the obvious into something truly funny. After being shut out by Harry, Erica finally has a writing breakthrough and, because her feelings are so tangled up, her every whoop of delight collapses into a wail. Even in a piffle like Something’s Gotta Give, Keaton reminds us of her uncanny ability to inhabit her characters’ knockabout emotions. In her Annie Hall days, she was famed for her thrown-together fashion sense, and her approach to acting is, in the best way, thrown-together, too. Audiences love her because they identify with the women she plays, who are never all of a piece. They’re a buzzing mass of highs and lows, and this seems a lot closer to how we experience ourselves right now than Hollywood’s usual streamlined approach to character. Nobody can be grave and goofy all at once like Diane Keaton. In these fractious times, it’s the perfect combo for a modern heroine.

Michael Caine plays pierre Brossard, a guilt-ridden French Nazi collaborator still on the run, in The Statement, and it’s a tribute to his great gifts that he’s highly effective even though miscast. (Vichy and Cockney don’t mix.) Brossard is a man for whom only God’s pardon has meaning. His devotion shrouds him from his own monstrousness.

Just about everyone in this film looks out of place, including Charlotte Rampling as Brossard’s wife, Alan Bates as a high-level government official, Tilda Swinton as a Paris magistrate, and Jeremy Northam as the French military colonel assigned to help Swinton rein in Brossard. (Yes, I know, what a cast—all wasted.) These Brits playing the French give the film a stilted quality that clearly wasn’t intended by the director, Norman Jewison, or the screenwriter, Ronald Harwood, whose extraordinary, open-ended script for The Pianist seems like a fluke next to this flat police procedural. The novel by Brian Moore on which the film is based seems tailor-made for an intelligent thriller in the Graham Greene mode, but in Jewison’s hands, the dragnet that closes in on Brossard is lackadaisical, and the larger political overtones—especially concerning the complicity of the Catholic church in aiding Nazis—are spelled out over and over. This history lesson no doubt bears repeating, but it’s not exactly the breaking news that the filmmakers would have us believe, and meanwhile we keep wondering why Michael Caine doesn’t have more screen time, or why Provence looks so lackluster. Brossard may crave absolution, but why must the audience do penance?

Movies that set out to be mythic usually end up earthbound, and so it is with much of Tim Burton’s Big Fish. Written by John August from the novel by Daniel Wallace, it’s about the tall-tale exploits of salesman and southern patriarch Edward Bloom, played as a dying man by Albert Finney and as a young gallivanter by Ewan McGregor. Edward’s estranged son, Will (Billy Crudup), reappears early on, hoping his father will finally open up to him. “Show me who you are for once,” he says, but most of the movie is taken up with Edward’s recollections of traveling circuses and of wooing his girlfriend (Alison Lohman) with 10,000 daffodils. Clearly, this was a personal project for Burton. He wants to be heartwarming, but his imagination is too gnarled and brackish, too infernally odd: When he shows us giants and conjoined twins, the effect is more Diane Arbus than Hallmark. Big Fish has moments of genuine emotion—especially an interlude in an idyllic sanctuary for lost souls that feels like one of the darker passages from Our Town—but overall, the film feels like it issues from a place Burton doesn’t inhabit.

Way Past Cool (at Two Boots Pioneer Theater), a first feature from director Adam Davidson based on the young-adult best seller by Jess Mowry, is about teen and preteen gang members in Oakland, but in tone and temperament it’s far from the usual homeboy melodrama. The violence is here, all right, but refracted through the eyes of boys who are still young enough to imagine their ’hood as a garden of unearthly delights. The mayhem and sorrow are doubly affecting because the kids, played mostly by nonactors, are rapidly losing a childhood they never really had. Davidson pays tribute to their dreams by imparting an almost tender lyricism. It’s a magical little movie about a most unmagical subject.

Acting Her Age