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'Sweet November': Slow Death by Syrup

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 16, 2001


    'Sweet November' Keanu Reeves, Charlize Theron are too cute for words in "Sweet November." (Warner Bros.)
You, Charlize Theron, are on the cusp of greatness. You are young, insanely beautiful, talented, adorable and hot.

What you yet lack, my sweet, is a screen persona. You can't be all over the place like you are now, in a film a week, in a personality a week. Dearest dear, you need to construct your movie identity on the model of a great star, and understand how she got the last drop of brilliance from herself.

I would recommend Bette Davis for the uncompromising will, or possibly Carole Lombard for the unquenchable spunk, or even Elizabeth Taylor for the extraordinary je ne sais quoi.

But you have chosen . . . Sandy Dennis?

That seems to be the sad truth concealed in the lump of sugar-coated awfulness called "Sweet November." It is indeed a remake of the Sandy Dennis vehicle of 1968 in which the dithering, whimpering, wet-nosed Dennis played a kooky, zany, wacky spitfire who makes it her business to rescue some poor prig in a suit-coat from a life of wretched misery doing his job. She's on a prig-of-the-month plan.

The premise has been ever so slightly updated, not that you would notice: Keanu Reeves is still an ad guy, as was Anthony Newley in the dimly remembered original, but he no longer wears suits because of course nobody wears suits anymore. He wears tight pants and dark silk shirts. This is progress?

And the movie still has a disease in it. Actually, I might have said the movie is a disease, but that would be unkind and I want to save today's random act of cruelty for something more deserving. So let us just say that if you like watching beautiful young women think they're acting when they do big tragic scenes on the theme of health decline – "Oh, my forehead is on fire!" – then you will be happy as a pig who made it alive out of the bacon factory while your sibs are decorating club sandwiches all over town.

The first half of the film is spent deconstructing the masculine identity of Reeves's character. As a Benz driver and workaholic named Nelson Moss, he has achieved success by hard work and aggressiveness. Of course he must be broken for these crimes against humanity. This is achieved, with Job-like arbitrariness, when he freaks out in response to a client who isn't recognizing his genius. Thus separated from his job (his girlfriend also dumps him, because he cares so much for his job) and suddenly at loose ends, he is vulnerable to Sara Deever's (Theron) brazen attempts to take over his life after a laborious meet-up scene at the Department of Motor Vehicles.

And you might wonder: Who on earth could resist Charlize Theron? Well, if she's imitating Sandy Dennis, it's not all that hard. Most adult men would run screaming from this braying narcissistic psychopath, attractive or not.

Sara is a free spirit, meaning she lives in a funky house and makes rescues her avocation (she appears to have no vocation). She saves dogs and men from the fate of being dogs and men. One is not supposed to pee on the floor and the other is not supposed to spend too much time at the office, but the movie isn't sure which is which. Men, dogs? Is there a difference?

She invites Nelson to move in, where she promptly strips him of watch, cell phone and wardrobe in exchange for hippie sex, which the movie doesn't document to any interesting degree (which is why it's a PG-13, not an R). The movie preaches that inside every lion there's a lamb pining to baa-baa on command for a headstrong young woman.

Nelson, orgasmified, sees the light; he falls in love with her; he even learns to be nice to her best pal, who lives in drag next door. That's quite an accomplishment for Nelson, considering that under the lip gloss and the moisturizer and the mascara lurks none other than Jason Isaacs, who played that mean old Col. Tavington who killed Mel Gibson's handsome son 219 years ago in "The Patriot." Enlightened Nelson also stalks out on a nasty ad exec (professionally nasty Frank Langella) who belittles a waitress. That's big of Keanu: He has become, as the movie preaches from the bully pulpit, a better man.

Will you marry me, he croons, knowing that he's violating the rules of their engagement, which hold that it can only last a month.

By now Sara has started coughing and having intense headaches, so you think he'd catch on. But he doesn't, because he's Keanu Reeves, after all.

The movie is shamelessly manipulative in a crude, bullying way. It telegraphs all its moves long in advance and it even manages the strange trick of making San Francisco seem unattractive and fatal diseases in beautiful women seem attractive. When I'm thinking, "Like hurry up and die," it's not a good sign.

"Sweet November" (120 minutes) is rated PG-13 for – well, I have no idea. It suggests – this just in – that adults have sex, I guess.


Copyright 2001 The Washington Post Company

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