There was a time when audiences were wet dishrags in the hands of movies that featured pretty women who died so that the men who loved them might learn what living life to its fullest was all about. It was a long, glorious era of weeping unashamedly, an era made for Bette Davis eyes. And it peaked in 1970 with Love Story, a romantic tragedy so definitively, effectively blubberific that deathless lines of Love Story dialogue linger in the memory still.
Other pale beauties have coughed and expired since Ali MacGraw lay radiantly pallid – just last year, Winona Ryder fought and lost a highly publicized battle with nausea-inducing heart trouble in Autumn in New York – but in the past three decades, inoculated moviegoers have developed such a tough resistance to old-fashioned dying-girl weepies that only fools rush in where even ER fears to tread.
Sweet November rushes rather than treads. Back in 1968, when the original was released in the full flush of the concurrent sexual and Carnaby Street revolutions, romantics might more readily have embraced a movie about a kooky, liberated Brooklyn chick (played by Sandy Dennis) who volunteers to cure a workaholic British businessman (played by Anthony Newley) by serving as his therapist/lover for a month, only to have him fall in love with her while she turns out to be hiding a mysterious, terminal ailment.
But remade today under the same title and starring Charlize Theron and Keanu Reeves, the movie is a very low-grade romantic drama indeed, a love story with all the life-and-death intensity of a heat rash. A woman so coyly mysterious about herself that she can’t tell the man who shares her bed about her medicine cabinet jammed with pills is a woman out of date with advances in therapy of the past 30 years. A man who doesn’t ask why the woman whose bed he shares disappears for long locked-door sessions in the bathroom is a man in need of his own subscription to O, The Oprah Magazine. Why should we care about two such emotional ostriches?
Then again, this new Sweet November, directed by Pat O’Connor (Circle of Friends) with a firm conviction that there’s nothing in life that can’t be fixed by a little nice decor, is one of those rare, addled remakes that doesn’t have the spectre of a perfectly good original with which to contend: The original was pretty awful too, with Dennis in full, exhausting madcappery and Newley overreacting like a Gilbert and Sullivan player. This pointless update is just … a product, an arrangement of photogenic stars in a structure approximating a three-act tragedy. It’s a brochure for shimmery, freebirdy San Francisco (to which the story has been transported), with its fresh, swoopy vistas of possibility and fellowship; it’s a calling card for attractive production and costume design. It’s meant not to sell classic melodramatic pathos or cleansing tragedy or the mysterious, life-altering process of falling in love, but to sell the stars themselves.
And as stars, Reeves and Theron are no more, and no less than Dennis and Newley were – celebrities of their time, making the gestures and saying the words of unlikely lovers Nelson Moss and Sara Deever. Because it’s 2001, Nelson’s self-centered workaholism as an egotistical adman is symbolized by his aggressive cell-phone use, and his moment of enlightenment occurs, with no premium on subtlety, when he realizes that, unlike his less evolved business partner (Ally McBeal’s Greg Germann), he doesn’t want to take a killer job with an agency biggie (Frank Langella) who’s witheringly rude to a waitress. Because it’s 2001, Sara is not only a vegetarian, but also a PETA pinup girl who rescues animals in danger.
Then again, because it’s 2001, Sara’s protective downstairs neighbor isn’t played by a doughy Theodore Bikel as a politically active sign painter, as he was in the original, but rather by Jason Isaacs as the answer to a modern single girl’s dreams: He’s a wise, adorable gay guy. (This one happens to be an adman by day, a fetching drag queen by night, and he’s got a nice boyfriend.) Rupert Everett has permanent first dibs on the job, but Isaacs, once the sexy villainous heart of The Patriot, is now the sexy angelic heart of a movie that otherwise proceeds without one.
I know I’ve been hard on Reeves in the past because of that frustrating, flat affect of his, the way he often seems trapped (as Sara describes Nelson) ”in a box.” Well, here it’s the movie itself that’s boxed in, and nothing Reeves and Theron do makes much difference. And if Sweet November can’t convince us that it matters whether Sara lets Nelson stay with her beyond November, why refill this expired prescription?