Keanu Reeves and Charlize Theron’s Contrived Sweet November

Written by Armond White on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.


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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