THE LAST SAMURAI

Directed by Nancy Meyers. USA. 2003.


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After years in the system both writing and producing, Nancy Meyers has gradually turned into the romcom version of Michael Mann, operating completely freelance by getting script and stars together first before going to the studios for the hard cash. Something's Gotta Give, then, is clearly Meyers' "Heat": for the De Niro and Pacino dream team read Nicholson and Keaton; for Val Kilmer read Keanu Reeves.

But can a romantic comedy really compete with a blue-soaked crime epic? It deserves to, and as a 'feminine' counterpoint to the classic 'masculine' cinema from which Heat descends, it really needs to punch its weight for this underappreciated genre.

This is an enjoyable film, undoubtedly, but as for Something's Gotta Give entering the pantheon, there are an unfortunate series of errors of judgment which prevent this occuring. Prime amongst these is Meyers' mistaking quality for quantity: crime or western epic, yes; romantic comedy epic, no. Anything longer than two hours and you are pushing it. If it is only just longer than two hours but feels even longer, as with this movie, then you really are struggling. Something's Gotta Give drags like Nicholson's corpulent belly, the time elapsing between the split and the re-union being far too long, and laugh and tension free, to sustain the audience's interest.

There is also a nagging feeling that for all the film's supposed sexual politics striking a blow for the older woman, which are extremely clumsily posited in an early speech from the under-used Frances McDormand, Nicholson's ageing lothario is not really learning anything. Anything, that is, beyond a fear of his own mortality and the ensuing Donnie Darko realisation that: "We all die alone". The need to avoid this lonely reality until his last few seconds thus becomes paramount; Keaton was just in the right place at the right time. But then, isn't that what love is all about anyway?

Certainly, but the love between Keaton and Nicholson is not convincing enough for us to forget this film's prior claims to political subversion. In order to strike a true blow against the Hollywood system of older man-younger woman she would have had to resist Jack's wiles and stay with Keanu, thus subverting the orthodoxy, leaving Jack to contemplate his death and the time he wasted chasing superficial young skirt. This would have been a satisfying ending, and also a fitting throwback to Keaton's Oscar-winning turn in Annie Hall, which ends with the whistful Woody happy for the time he spent with Keaton, just as Nicholson appears to be at the end of Something's Gotta Give.

But when Keaton then finally leaves the younger man at the end it doesn't really work, as there is both a conflict of interest and an underlying absurdity: this is Keanu Reeves she is leaving here... Keanu Reeves! For a fat old heart attack waiting to happen. Moreover, Reeves was the original pacemaker for Keaton's sexual re-awakening anyway; if he hadn't have pursued her initally she would still have been the turtlenecked mother figure Nicholson so decried earlier on. It doesn't actually seem fair on Keanu; Keaton's self-esteem appears so preternaturally low that she couldn't take the attention that he lavished on her and instead preferred someone she could mollycoddle and be hurt by. This is not that subversive I'm afraid - apart from, perhaps, Keaton's character bordering on the masochistic, constantly imploring her daughter to open herself up to pain. Is this the romcom way of expounding the fact that in a patriarchal society women are the ones doomed to suffer, so they might as well enjoy it?

Perhaps not. This trait seems to be portrayed as more of a general consequence of life, not a specifically feminine one. Overall, Keaton's character is not really a positive role model for women but a reinforcement of depressingly familiar archetypes; and this film is not in the least bit radical. Even the much-hyped nude scene by Keaton is not exactly harrowing. Yes, she is sixty plus, yes she has wrinkles, but her body is as sag-free as a baby's. I mean, she's Diane Keaton - it's not as if Jack is having to lower himself to some dinner lady here, is he?

Depressingly, to supplement the film's shameful evasion of following through on its radical aspirations, Keaton's patented ditzy/kooky performance becomes more grating as the film progresses, culminating in a sequence, clearly supposed to be hilarious, where she is typing and crying for about five minutes. But we're not just talking crying, we're talking comedy wailing. No. No. Not fun at all.

Fortunately for Diane, she is sandwiched between two sterling performers. Jack, bless him, sends up his public persona quite willingly and seems to enjoy himself. And if Keaton is sag-free, Nicholson is one big sag - but quite fascinating to look at. It's more than sag actually - it's crag. In this film Nicholson confirms himself as the cragmeister general, putting other crag-wannabes like Clint Eastwood and Michael Douglas to shame. With a crampon and a rope you could scale his widow's peak and look down on his rubber face with pride.

As for Keanu: how refreshing is it to see him in a film where he isn't wearing a mack and spouting neo-Zen sci-fi gibberish whilst fighting the intensely annoying Agent Smith? Very, very refreshing. And he looks incredible. This man needs to wipe the Wachowski's number from his little black book and get back into competing with Johnny Depp, Brad Pitt and George Cloney for Most Gorgeous Male in The Universe. He's been away too long. Better yet, they should erase the Matrixes and remake them with Jack as Morpheus ("I ain't gonna hurt ya Agent Smith. I'm just gonna bash your brains in: bash 'em right the f**k in!").

There are a few laughs to help the boys along, Amanda Peet is diverting as Keaton's daughter, and there is a breath-and-you'll-miss-it cameo from Jon Favreau. The film is emollient as it can be, as proficient a date movie as you could find, but really, with judicious editing and a braver ending, could have been a whole lot more. Some people have queried the title's relevance to the film, but perhaps here we get the greatest insight into what it is actually about: when the fanciful notions of creating a subversive romantic comedy meet the colossus that is decades of narrative and social orthodoxy, something has, indeed, got to give. And it was Nancy Meyers who blinked first.

Peter Anderson
 
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