Sweet November (2001)
Directed by Pat O'Connor
Cast: Keanu Reeves, Charlize Theron, Jason Isaacs, Liam Aiken, Greg Germann, Michael Rosenbaum, Frank Langella, Lauren Graham.
2001 117 minutes
Rated: (for mild profanity and sexual situations).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, February 17, 2001.
A cold workaholic. A free spirit who gradually helps him to loosen up and care about others. An unforeseen passion between the two unlikely souls. A tragic secret that threatens to tear them apart. Had "Sweet November," directed by Pat O'Connor (1998's "Dancing at Lughnasa"), been handled with less care, it would have surely seemed like little else than a weepy NBC "movie-of-the-week." Its offbeat, somewhat far-fetched premise gradually makes way for the type of conventional romantic drama that could only end with a tearjerker ending. In raising the material slightly above the norm for this indisputable, somewhat shameless genre, screenwriter Kurt Voelker has offered a subtle hand in making everything come together without as much sap as there could have been. Ultimately, the movie is far from perfect, and the running time is about fifteen minutes past its prime, but it genuinely surprises by saving itself with the gently done, powerful conclusion.
Nelson Moss (Keanu Reeves) is a hard-working, emotionless San Francisco ad executive who is so dedicated to his work, he has lost track of the other things in life that make it worth living. He lives so much by the clock, in fact, that when his alarm goes off while he is in the middle of having sex with his neglected girlfriend, Anjelica (Lauren Graham), he immediately stops to get ready for work.
While renewing his license at the local DMV, Nelson has a chance meeting with Sara Deever (Charlize Theron), who is thrown out of the testing center for responding to a question that Nelson whispers to her. Without a license, she persuades Nelson to act as her chauffeur one night, only to break into an animal shelter and save two puppies from being put to death. A joyous, beautiful, young woman who has learned to not take life for granted for even a second, Sara presents Nelson with a proposition: for the entire month of November, she will invite him to move in with her, and spend every minute with him. Nelson thinks she's crazy.
After a failed meeting the next day and a nasty confrontation with his boss, Nelson finds himself fired from his job. To make matters worse, Anjelica leaves him. With nothing to lose, Nelson finally accepts Sara's offer. Her goal, of course, is to make him wake up and smell the coffee--that is, become a better, more well-rounded and humane, person. As Nelson gradually falls for her, Sara is frightened to find herself attracted to him in a way she never has before. The answer to why Sara casually chooses a man every month to mold and enlighten is one that Nelson is unsure of, although it is sure to be uncovered by the time November comes to a close.
A remake of the same-titled 1968 film starring Sandy Dennis and Anthony Newley, "Sweet November" meanders for much of its length, yet never so much that it doesn't have time to recover for an excellent final half-hour. The success of the climax comes as something of a shock, considering that it is this potentially asinine section that seemed most likely to fail. What comes before isn't so much bad as it is merely shopworn. The machinations of the generic plot work overtime to offer little in the way of original material, and many sequences feel repetitive, as if they are just repeating what has already been established in the budding romance between Nelson and Sara.
Increasing the classiness of "Sweet November" and making its developments credible is the exquisite Charlize Theron (2000's "The Legend of Bagger Vance"). In a role that somehow feels made precisely for her, as a showcase for both her beauty and talent, Theron creates a character that is as lovable and alluring as she is unconventional in her way of life. Having Nelson fall hopelessly in love with Sara seems like a nonexistent stretch with someone like Theron playing her, and we grow to care about her in a way that is not immediately palpable.
In his second film with Theron (after 1997's superior, scary "The Devil's Advocate"), Keanu Reeves makes for a believably close-vested, frigid businessman in the first half, and a progressively softer human being who realizes the artificiality of his day-to-day existence in the latter. Criticized in the past for his less-than-naturalistic performances, there is no doubt that Reeves has matured as an actor in recent years, plausibly playing a serial killer (2000's "The Watcher"), an abusive, backwoods husband (2000's "The Gift"), an unsuspecting computer programmer/action hero (1999's "The Matrix"), and a football player (2000's "The Replacements").
The supporting cast is almost uniformly good, if not necessarily well-developed. Jason Isaacs (the villainous Col. Tavington in 2000's "The Patriot") is a standout as Chaz, the best friend/neighbor of Sara's, offering up a strong amount of wisdom and sweetness, while Michael Rosenbaum (1998's "Urban Legend") shows much promise in the small role of his caring boyfriend. Greg Germann (TV's "Ally McBeal") serviceably plays Reeves' snooty coworker-partner, but remains one-dimensional throughout. And Liam Aiken (1998's "Stepmom") poses as only a cursory annoyance as a fatherless child who takes a liking to Nelson.
The dreamy cinematography by Edward Lachman successfully present the surroundings with the appropriate amount of beauty Sara so passionately sees in the world, while the music score, by Christopher Young, thankfully does not overpower the actors' emotions or spell out what we are supposed to feel in any given scene. Meanwhile, the recurring song in the picture, "Only You," by Enya, is perfect in setting up its "Love Story" angle, as well as the character of Sara.
For the middle forty-five minutes, the energy in "Sweet November" admittedly begins to flag. With Sara and Nelson now in love, the story slows to a crawl and starts to repeat itself, all the while setting up the tragic plot twist that everything predictably leads up to. While this turn doesn't fully succeed and isn't exactly necessarily, credit director Pat O'Connor for playing it out with a generally light touch and (spoiler alert ahead) sparing us a deathbed scene. "Sweet November" is flawed, to be sure, but its heart sure is in the right place.
©2001 by Dustin Putman