Viagra Falls 

Talent goes to waste in this banal romantic comedy

As it is, writer and director Nancy Meyers squanders the abundant talents at her disposal on a film whose look and vision seem to have been borrowed from commercials for cholesterol medications and California zinfandels. “Something’s Gotta Give” is just another tired tale of a woman who needs a man to rekindle her libido, and a man who needs a woman to school him in love and commitment.

Nicholson’s Harry is a charming cad who carelessly glides from one affair to another, always with much younger women. For this habit we know he will be punished, and his torments start quickly. His current obsession (Amanda Peet) is the daughter of a famous playwright (Keaton) and the niece of a women’s studies professor (Frances McDormand). Neither of the older women has a man, and when everyone gets together, dinner turns into a seminar on society’s conspiracy against women over 35. As if in an attempt to escape, Harry has a heart attack.

Trapped into caring for a convalescing Harry, Keaton’s Erica soon glimpses unexpected depth in her patient, and Harry discovers the charms of being with a woman born before the second Reagan administration. Meanwhile, Harry’s cardiologist (Keanu Reeves) falls for Erica, in part because he reveres her plays. “She’s pretty major,” he assures a skeptical Harry, who knows her only as his girlfriend’s sourpuss mom. The daughter quickly fades from view, and the question becomes whether the older or younger man will win Erica’s heart.

There’s a good story to be told here, but writer and director Nancy Meyers is not the one to tell it. She’s fine when she’s setting up Harry for his comeuppance, giving him lines that, buoyed by Nicholson’s impish performance, entertainingly expose his delusions. But she’s adrift when it comes to creating a compelling, complicated character for Keaton to play. Although Erica is supposed to be one of the stars of the literary world, she speaks in the platitudes of daytime television; she’s closer to “The View” than to “A View from the Bridge.” When Harry subjects her to a flimsy pop-psych diagnosis (“You use your strength to separate yourself from everyone”), she reacts as if new vistas have been revealed to her. “You’re the only person who ever really got me,” she says, thunderstruck. At times she even lapses into a slangy incoherence more characteristic of someone her daughter’s age. “The whole alone thing happens at night,” she reflects, leaving us to wonder when the whole inspired thing can possibly happen at all.

The choice to cast Reeves as Nicholson’s competition also works against the emergence of any real drama. Reeves’ face, unmolested by strong emotion, is a beaming emblem of good hygiene, but when he wants to suggest that deep things are going on in his noggin, all he can do is adopt the bemused expression of a good-natured pup whose master has given it an ambiguous command. After stealing his first kiss, he attempts to woo “the most successful female playwright since Lillian Hellman” by saying, “I knew you’d smell good.” Amazingly, this line works pretty well for him.

In “Something’s Gotta Give,” Nancy Meyers aspires to something more than light romantic farce, but her heart isn’t in it. All the attention paid to sexual politics is really just window dressing. The movie wants us to believe that there’s something terribly sophisticated and high-minded happening onscreen, but ultimately it banks on the sight of Keaton’s bared torso and Nicholson’s disturbingly tanned backside to deliver its biggest laughs. It’s no discredit to either actor to say that such moments can’t carry a film for grown-ups. ** S

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