Friday, February 16, 2001

Silly romance the same old hankie panky

Movie: Sweet November

Posted on Fri, Feb 16, 2001 at 4:00 AM

*1/2
Our Rating: 1.50

If not one more romantic weeper is put on film this millennium, "Sweet November" will still have kept the genre afloat. A remake of a largely forgotten 1968 drama starring Anthony Newley and Sandy Dennis, it hauls out every heart-tugging trick in the book.

Brace yourself for: tearful confessions! Adorable kids! Cross-dressing neighbors! Wistful, memory-laden montages! Cute dogs and cats!

Not convinced? How about an insufferably zany couple? Or what may be the worst performance yet by Keanu Reeves, if such a thing is possible to chart?

Reeves plays Nelson Moss, a hard-driven advertising executive with no time for love in his life. True, he has a girlfriend, but he seems to keep her around solely to relieve his sexual tension as he prepares for another assault on the conference rooms of America.

Reeves fits this archetype no better than Nicolas Cage did in The Family Man. Throwing his shoulders back, he lowers his voice a few notes past its normal rumble to emit such grown-up announcements as "This account is very important to me!" As macho caricatures go, he's just this side of The Tick.

When a hot-dog manufacturer rejects Nelson's proposal for a distinctly Freudian ad campaign, he becomes incensed at the client's lack of vision. Their argument escalates until Nelson has to be physically restrained. (Just like Al Pacino!) As a result, he loses his job, his company car and his sweetie -- all in the same day. So Nelson is easy prey for Sara Deever (Charlize Theron), a mystery woman he meets at the Department of Motor Vehicles.

We know that Sara is a free spirit, because her wardrobe makes copious use of scarves and work boots. Unemployed by choice, she spends her time rescuing animals, preparing vegan dishes and taking neighbor kids to toy-boat regattas.

Following a line of argument that should make sense to no one, Sara browbeats Nelson into moving into her funky apartment for one month. In that time, she promises to cure him of his stress-junkie ways and make him appreciate the world anew. As a bonus, they immediately begin to have sex. "I'll never lie to you," Sara promises, though she does give his clothes away to the homeless. In movies, this is considered disarming behavior; in real life, it's called "being bipolar."

Underneath it all, Sara has a reason for her gamboling -- a hackneyed reason we see coming a mile away, but a reason nonetheless. What counts is that Nelson can't see it, making his motivation impenetrable as he and Sara shuttle from one adventure to another. He must have missed the Sandy Dennis version, too.

Unlike Reeves, Theron is mildly interesting for 30 minutes or so -- mainly because it takes us that much time to decide if she's genuinely sympathetic or merely has nice eyebrows. (It's the latter.) The only true high point is Greg Germann's role as Vince, Nelson's sexist buddy. While Vince is a toned-down variation of Germann's Richard Fish on TV's "Ally McBeal," it's still fun to hear him spew wicked aspersions and sleazy pick-up lines. "You look great in that smock," he tells a coffee vendor.

Director Pat O'Connor demonstrated a fair sensitivity in the Irish dramas "Circle of Friends and Dancing at Lughnasa," but none of that taste is evident here. At least he doesn't ask Reeves to impersonate a man o' the green.

One star for Germann. Half a star for the dogs and cats, who are very believable as dogs and cats. And for Reeves, an embroidered pillow bearing the movie's most salient line of dialogue: "People tend to enjoy what they're really good at." Think how miserable he must be.

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