Something's Gotta Give

(Nancy Meyers, USA, 2003)


Pain, discomfort, humiliation, embarrassment: there is never enough of these experiences in Hollywood comedies. We are so used to the slick, no-bumps ride which most movies offer that if an otherwise formulaic piece deviates for even a moment into something stickier and less comfortable, it hits us as a powerful moment of realism. And this is the effect wielded with quite some skill by Something’s Gotta Give.


Although it’s closer to an only slightly cockeyed entertainment like The Banger Sisters (2002), the film which Something’s Gotta Give most reminds me of is James L. Brooks' brave, proudly neurotic As Good as it Gets (1997). Both films share the same great star, Jack Nicholson, in the self-mocking, risk-taking phase of his brilliant career.


Here Nicholson is Harry, a self-made record industry executive who has made his fortune, and gained his street cred, from running an independent hip hop label. His taste for much younger women, and his blasé way of justifying this predilection, of course draw on the actor’s own public persona. But the Jack who talks candidly in interviews of the physical aches and pains of a man his age, and who has become the gleeful spokesperson for Viagra, also gets a look-in here.


The title promises the encounter of Harry’s irascible force with a suitably prim, immoveable object – and that is incarnated in Erica (Diane Keaton), a celebrated playwright who is taken aback when she finds her adult daughter, Marin (Amanda Peet), frolicking with the notorious Harry. The film gingerly sidesteps the complication of actually having these two unlikely lovers sleep together by taking Harry to the emergency ward with the first of several heart attack episodes.


The central and best part of the film comes when Harry is incapacitated and only Erica is available to nurse him back to health. Their mutual hate slowly turns to something fonder, but with surprises and complications along the way. Harry, as Erica has to admit to her no-nonsense sister Zoe (Frances McDormand), is a surprisingly soulful guy. Erica finds herself loosening up in his company. But there is also a holding-back in Harry’s behaviour – caught beautifully in the moment when he declares to Erica, circuitously and impersonally, that she is “a woman to love”.


Just when you imagine Something’s Gotta Give might be winding down to an easy, happy ending, it vigorously kicks off again. Erica’s pain and anger lead to the autobiographical catharsis of her hit play – wouldn’t you know it, A Woman to Love – and her own dalliance with the younger generation, in the form of a gorgeous and wholly adoring doctor, Julian (Keanu Reeves). Harry, meanwhile, stumbles solo down various awkward paths in search of self-knowledge.


There is much in this film that is facile and overplayed (especially the pratfalls). But writer-director Nancy Meyers occasionally pierces the fog of generic conventions with exchanges that are touchingly fragile and truthful. (Watch for the careful motifs, such as the different ways that the various pairs of characters embrace each another.) Meyers' speciality, from Baby Boom (1987) to What Women Want (2000), has been the comedy of miscommunication and mismatching between the sexes – kept at a light level due to the reliance on ephemeral, pop wisdom about gender politics.


Here Meyers outdoes Nora Ephron in marrying this superficial comedy of manners to a genuine, indeed soulful longing for human connection that goes beyond a simple, standard code of romance. Friendship, orgasm, ageing, commitment, pillow talk: all the obsessions that have filled mainstream cinema and TV from Terms of Endearment (1983) to Sex in the City – not to mention a legion of lifestyle magazines and columns – are duly dealt with by Meyers, but with less brittleness and more heart than usual.


Something’s Gotta Give is one of those mainstream event-films that evokes more possibilities than it can pursue, and raises more questions than it can answer. The ending, especially, is forced, weak and too neat. But at least Meyers dares to tread in those grey zones of difficult emotion that too few films of this type even acknowledge, let alone approach.

Meyers: The Parent Trap

© Adrian Martin January 2004

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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