Published February 1, 2001
I should say that I have not seen the original film of 1968 which inspired the remake of Sweet November, written by Kurt Voelker and directed by Pat O’Connor. But I have seen so many films so much like it — admittedly not many of them recently — that the remake looks very familiar indeed. Though set in the present day, it has about it the authentic musty smell of the 1960s, a decade in which it was possible to enjoy a certain amount of theatrical success merely by having your hero tell off his boss, or not wear a suit to work one day. The national obsession with “conformity,” dating back to the 1950s and the myth of the “organization man,” ultimately produced a succession of cinematic free spirits in movies from Breakfast at Tiffany’s to Easy Rider, from A Hard Day’s Night to A Thousand Clowns, who were the harbingers of that herd of non-conformists gathering, by the end of the decade, at Woodstock. Or the Pentagon.
The Holly Golightly type who educates the up-tight, sober, workaholic hero with the help of an eccentric gentleman — or lady — who lives upstairs — or downstairs — was a remarkably adaptable figure. Even Jane Fonda got to play her, to Robert Redford’s up-tight lawyer, in Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park. Simon, however, as entertainer-in-chief to the bourgeoisie, made them a chastely married odd-couple. Usually the woman with the free spirit was also free with her sexual favors, and the title of Sweet November referred to its heroine’s endearing habit of taking a new lover every month. The original featured Sandy Dennis in the role, that of the “partly woman but mostly child” Sara Deever, and Anthony Newley as her devoted November.
Miss Dennis (she died in 1992) was an actress whose entire career, which pretty much petered out after 1970, depended on her playing similar roles. She had that fragile, waif-like appearance that seemed sexy for a brief period in the 1960s (think of Twiggy). The remake gives us the strapping South African lass, Charlize Theron, as this lovable gamine while the wooden Keanu Reeves plays Mr Uptight, the man who comes to joyous, uninhibited life under her guidance. And that is to say nothing of super-butch Jason Isaacs, the unforgettable British bad-guy in Mel Gibson’s The Patriot, who has been pressed into service as the eccentric gentleman and life-adviser who lives downstairs. Naturally, as this is San Francisco, this person is a drag queen.
If these casting decisions sound like good ideas to you then by all means go see this movie. And stop reading this review. Not only will I have nothing more to say to you, but I mean to reveal the ending, since it provides the only insight into what the film’s creators might have thought they were doing by such eccentric casting. For there has been a subtle change in the 60s message. Then it was: be free, do what you want, live selfishly, since nobody can tell you what to do without your permission. Nowadays this insane but once-persuasive counsel would presumably go down less well, so it has become something more like an innocuous exhortation to make more time in your busy schedule for loved ones and to be nicer to people at work. And animals. And drag queens.
Well, who can argue with that? The fact is that contemporary audiences don’t want to be told to change their lives in any really radical way. That fancy-dressed, quit-your-job 1960s-vintage Bohemianism won’t play so well today, though American Beauty had a rather successful go at reviving it in another form. It’s OK for Sara for the same reason it was for the hero of American Beauty — because (as we find out near the end) she is about to die. She is therefore not just a free spirit, taking up a new “case” as her lover every month, but someone who is herself trying to get the most out of life before snuffing it from cancer. And her final gift to poor Keanu — with whom, of course, she has fallen in love as he has with her — is to send him back to his world of advertising and lattes and workouts with nothing but a memory. “If you leave now,” she bravely tells him, meaning before she is helpless and bed-ridden, “everything will be perfect forever.”
“Life isn’t perfect,” says Keanu, reasonably enough.
“All we have is how you remember me: you’re my immortality,” she persists, clinching her case by saying: “I need this. . .just like I need to know that you’ll go on and have a beautiful life.” And so, amazingly, Keanu turns his back on her to return to his “beautiful life” of advertising and lattes and workouts, which is presumably even more beautiful now that, thanks to her, he is not such an a******e. It is, in other words, a movie whose paean to the virtue of selfishness — a selfishness, of course, only of the “nicest” sort — is further exalted by another to the virtue of cowardice. For those who like this kind of thing, this is the kind of thing they will like.