Something's Gotta Give never moves much beyond this cynical premise. Writer-director Nancy Meyer opens the film with perhaps the most painfully contrived setup since the cancellation of "Three's Company." Nicholson and his young girlfriend (Amanda Peet) go to her mother's gorgeous Hamptons beach house to spend the weekend consummating their relationship. No sooner do they arrive than Mom (Keaton) and her sister (Frances McDormand) show up. Nicholson and Keaton take an immediate dislike to each other, but all four nonetheless decide to stay at the beach house together. ("We're all sophisticated people," explains McDormand.) That night, during foreplay with Peet, Nicholson suffers a heart attack and is rushed to the hospital. When he recovers, his young doctor (Keanu Reeves) releases him from the hospital but only on the condition that he remain "nearby"--i.e., at Keaton's house. McDormand and Peet scram almost immediately, leaving the two antagonists alone to fight, complain, fall in love, split up, fight, complain, and fall in love again.
This plot develops with all the imagination of a flow chart. Meyer (who also did Private Benjamin, Baby Boom, and both Father of the Bride remakes) knows exactly what each scene is supposed to do and sends loud enough signals that everyone in the audience knows, too. The problem is that all too often Meyer uses this collective knowledge as an excuse not to have the scene actually do what we all know it was supposed to do. For example, there's the walk-on-the-beach scene where Keaton and Nicholson bond over the long lives they've lived and the travails they've overcome. Meyer's treatment of the moment is weirdly attenuated: Nicholson says he learned all about Keaton's life from an Internet search; she confesses to having done the same for him and gives a ten-second summary of his resume. "The truth is," Keaton concludes, "it goes by fast, doesn't it?" Yes, it did. Here are two people who do not need to know each other, they need only to know how to access knowledge of each other: contemporary love! The film is full of moments like this, shorthand scenes that are needed to further the plot or fulfill the requirements of the genre, but that Meyer never took the time to write in any meaningful sense.
Meyer's authorial laziness is further enabled by the casting of Keaton and Nicholson, both of whom are so familiar to moviegoers that the business of developing their characters is largely done for her. Nicholson is playing Nicholson, right down to the sunglasses and cigars, in the most self-parodying role of a career characterized by self-parody. Indeed, the only way a man this coarse and fat and vain could get hot young sex in his sixties is if he actually is Jack Nicholson; if we for one moment believed that this lout was really a record producer named Harry Sanborn, the character would immediately be rendered either absurd or repulsive. (If you saw a 67-year-old man leer ostentatiously at a young woman's bottom in the grocery store and proceed to simulate oral sex on his ice cream cone, would you find it playfully charming or merely grotesque?) And Keaton is playing Keaton: She still makes do with her ostentatious collection of tics and gestures that will be familiar to anyone who's followed her work, especially her 1970s collaborations with Woody Allen. She stutters and giggles, she flips her hair and bites her lip, perennially caught between bubbly enthusiasm and gnawing self-doubt.
What makes Keaton's daffy performance here disconcerting is that, according to the movie, this is not at all who she is supposed to be. Again and again, characters in the film refer to her strength, her independence, her decisiveness. This, despite the fact that she spends half the movie giggling and the other half sobbing. Nicholson, apparently confusing her with Katherine Hepburn, tells her she's "flinty," "impervious," and "formidable." Flinty? This is not a word that plausibly applies to Keaton, in this film or any other.
But Meyer is clearly convinced that if she tells us something enough times she can get away without ever showing it. How do we know, for example, that Keaton's character, Erica Barry, is a brilliant, accomplished playwright? Not because she ever says anything particularly clever, nor even because anyone cites a memorable moment from one of her plays. No, we know it because the characters say so, over and over: "She's totally brilliant"; "She is so accomplished"; "the most successful female playwright since who, Lillian Hellman?"; "She's a fantastic writer"; "She's pretty major"; "She's very brilliant." Having informed us so many times of her character's scintillating genius, Meyer feels no apparent obligation to write a character who is a scintillating genius. Indeed, if one were to go by what we see in Something's Gotta Give, as opposed to what the film tells us, the inevitable conclusion would be that Keaton is the worst playwright in the history of theater. The play she writes during the course of the movie (which we are, of course, told is "wonderful," "totally hilarious," "the best thing you've ever written") consists exclusively of verbatim transcriptions of her interactions with Nicholson, none of which were particularly funny the first time around. The movie loves itself so much that it turns its script into a script.
Ironically, it is exactly Keaton's failure to portray the character written for her--the "brilliant," "formidable," "impervious" playwright--that surely accounts for the popularity of her performance with critics and audiences alike. Keaton is one of the most well-liked actresses of her generation, and her generation--her demographic, as the suits say--happens to be the one that, due to its size, has set American tastes for forty years. Something's Gotta Give is a boomer nostalgia trip, and if Keaton puts an overgenerous portion of Annie Hall into her performance, then so much the better. (It's no coincidence that when Nicholson decides to go through Keaton's old photo albums, the one he selects is from the 1970s; some of the shots could be publicity stills from her Woody Allen days.) There's nothing wrong with trading on nostalgia, of course, unless--as in this case--it's intended as a substitute for wit, charm, and genuine emotion. This is why Something's Gotta Give ultimately isn't worth bothering with. Its best elements are the ones you already have in your head, and the rest aren't worth watching.
The Home Movies List:
Jack self-parody watch
Terms of Endearment. The dirty-old-man routine wasn't terribly entertaining even 20 years ago, but at least he didn't inflict his bare ass on us.
Witches of Eastwick. When your onscreen persona becomes too large for a mere mortal, you give Old Nick a try. Nicholson and DeNiro (Angel Heart) both did it in 1987; Pacino's more enjoyable turn (The Devil's Advocate) had to wait another decade.
Batman. Jack's Joker may have stolen the movie from a horribly miscast Michael Keaton, but was his gluttonous scene-chewing really worth $50 million?
Wolf. The sexual animal gig again, but more literally. Not even the scene where Nicholson pees on James Spader's leg can make up for the image of him bouncing through Central Park on all fours.
Anger Management. Another movie that never really developed beyond the pitch phase. Adam Sandler has a suppressed rage problem; his court-appointed anger management consultant is Nicholson. Get it?
Christopher Orr is a Senior Editor at TNR