Sweet November (2001): Pat O’Connor’s Feature, Starring Keanu Reeves and Charlize Theron

Pat O’Connor’s Sweet November is a disappointingly contrived movie that tries quixotically to be a romantic comedy and an emotional drama, and fails miserably at both.

A loose remake of a Sandy Dennis-Anthony Newly 1968 film, with heavy borrowing from Love Story, this version is toplined by a miscast Keanu Reeves as a hot shot ad exec who falls for a loony bohemian, played by the beautiful Charlize Theron.

Manufactured as a Valentine Day’s date movie, this anachronistic doomed affair will be dismissed by most critics and its only chance to survive is if its target audience of indiscriminating female teenagers would flock to see it; PG-13 rating should help, though basically it’s a one-weekend movie.

The woman’s picture, known in Hollywood as the weepie, seems to be back with a vengeance, first with the Richard Gere-Winona Ryder doomed romance, Autumn in New York, and now with Sweet November, an incoherent movie with a serious identity problem. Though nominally set in present-day San Francisco, the film is anachronistic, with characters, plot, and lingo that are not grounded in any recognizable reality. The narrative, credited to Kurt Voelker (based on Yurik Voelker’s story and Herman Ruacher’s script), is a patchwork that, among the various ideologies thrown into the mix, propagates 1960s and 1970s free love and sex, 1980s yuppism, and 1990s New-Age and pro-animal rights.

Depicting a cutesy meeting by two polar opposite, the first reel very much belongs to a schlocky romantic comedy. Nelson Moss (Reeves), a self-centered, workaholic exec who lives by his cell-phone, represents everything that’s despised by Sara Deever (Theron), a modern-day hippie-flower girl. They meet in the offices of the DMV, where both take a driving test. Arriving with a bag full of groceries, which of course gets spilled so that she can display her shapely body, Sara grabs Nelson’s immediate attention. Exchange of looks and words causes Sara to flunk her test, and Nelson reluctantly becoming her chauffeur. Helpless Sara needs a ride to Oakland–this in a city like San Francisco, where public transportation is one of the best in the country. Never mind.

Following the tradition of sexually aggressive heroines, Sara claims that she knows what’s good for Nelson, insisting that he moves in with her for a month-trial therapy beginning November 1. It turns out that Sara’s specialty is to take a new, insecure lover every month, help him find confidence and regain joy in his life, then dump him for the next one. All too conveniently, the script arranges for Nelson to lose his job (after a terrible presentation of a new ad campaign for hot dogs) and neglected girlfriend on the same day. Despite his better instincts, he moves into Sara’s colorful apartment and plunges into her world.

Though there are some outdoor scenes, most of the serio-comedy unfolds as an intimate two-character piece. Pandering to the audience, the film introduces a stereotypical gay neighbor, Chaz (Jason Isaacs, who was so impressive as the arch villain in The Patriot), a sensitive guy who knows Sara’s secret and takes care of her. It comes as a shock that Chaz is a successful ad exec–in fact, Nelson’s competitor–because he’s never seen working. Nor, for that matter, is it suggested how Sara supports herself It’s that kind of a movie, where viewers are not expected to ask any questions.

One miscalculation follows another, beginning with a scene in which Chaz and his companion are dressed in drag, which serves no other purpose but the film’s desperate need to entertain. Interspersed in the narrative, whose tone gets darker after it’s disclosed that Sara is dying of a fatal ailment, are schmaltzy scenes with a neighbor kid, who’s fatherless, and an adorable dog that’s given for adoption and then brought back to Sara. In what’s the film’s dramatic climax–and fakest scene–Nelson discovers in the bathroom a cabinet full of Sara’s medicine–so much for having an honest relationship.

Among other things, the inexplicable denouement gives a bad name–and dubious interpretation–to romantic love. Wishing to remember their best times together, Sara demands that Nelson leaves rather than face her decline, and he stupidly consents. The burden of caring for the ailing Sara falls on her estranged family, which needless to say, is never seen or alluded to in the film.

It’s a tribute to the gifted Theron that, despite basic implausibilities in her character and story, she renders a touching and likable performance. Though nice-looking, Reeves proves again that his range is limited and delivery of simple line affected. Secondary cast is burdened with poorly constructed roles and insolent dialogue, including Nelson’s ambitious pal (Greg Germann), who can’t remember his date’s name, and a ruthless ad mogul (Frank Langella), who humiliates a waitress in a truly embarrassing scene.

Who could have predicted that as we begin the new millennium, Hollywood would retrogress to such infantilia as Sweet November, a film that inadvertently makes Love Story, a much despised tearjerker, a classic of its kind.