Sweet November (United States, 2001)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Note to readers: this review contains spoilers. While I do not believe that the revelation of certain plot points will damage the overall viewing experience, those who wish to see Sweet November without having previous knowledge of key elements would do well to bail out now and return after they have seen the film.

Let me begin by admitting that, although I have seen the original Sweet November (which was released in 1968), it has been more than a decade since I sat in front of a TV to watch it, and my recollections are dim at best. I remember kind of liking it, but thinking it was hokey. Now, some thirty-three years later, lugubrious director Pat O'Connor has elected to re-make the film - a rather mystifying decision as far as I'm concerned. In the case of the 2001 version, "hokey" definitely applies; "kind of liked", however, does not. Sweet November is a bad idea brought to life on the big screen.

Romances are supposed to touch that tender, special place in the viewer's heart, not encourage nap-taking. With a convoluted, contrived plot that effectively emasculates and lobotomizes the lead characters, Sweet November fails to connect on an emotional level. This grim, tepid tearjerker is so fundamentally dishonest that it makes the normally obligatory practice of carrying Kleenexes to the theater unnecessary. Shedding even one tear over these lovers is as unlikely as weeping over Winona Ryder's death in Autumn in New York.

And that brings us to Sweet November's least successful and most insulting plot device: the terminal illness. This is the stand-by for any screenplay that can't arrive at another way to wrap things up. Killing off a character is certainly definitive, but, in almost all cases, it's a cheat - a painful and obvious attempt to manipulate the audience. Sweet November is an especially unpalatable example, because the manipulation is inept. We don't care enough about the characters for the impending death of one to make a difference. They're constructs who act in ways that are so contrary to human nature that it's impossible to accept them as credible, even within the constraints of a movie storyline. In fact, the preposterousness of their actions and personality changes is one of the things that sabotages the viewer's attempts to suspend disbelief.

The set-up for this film is absurd. Had the movie been presented as a sort of modern-day fairy tale, the avalanche of contrivances might have been easier to disregard, but O'Connor takes great pains to set the film in a concrete time and place (San Francisco at the beginning of the 21st century). In this way, he makes it clear that he intends the film to be viewed as a straightforward romantic drama, rather than as a fable of sorts. Sweet November is so earnest that it's impossible to have any fun with. And, once we realize we're supposed to take this movie seriously, it becomes unbearable.

Charlize Theron plays Sara Deever (the role essayed by Sandy Dennis in the original), a good-natured free-spirit who takes on a new "project" every month. She finds a man whom she believes to be in need of her unique services, then invites him to live with her for one month (no more, no less) in order to cure him of whatever affliction she sees. Why a month? Because, in her words, it's "long enough to be meaningful, but short enough to stay out of trouble." Her latest quarry is Nelson Moss (Keanu Reeves, taking over for Anthony Newley), a ad agency exec. He's cold and self-absorbed, and Sara believes that his social skills are eroding. When she offers to help him, he initially spurns her overture, but, after losing both his job and his girlfriend during one horrible day, he re-considers. Complications soon ensue, however, as Nelson finds it difficult to live by Sara's "no business" rule, and as the two develop deeper feelings for each other than either anticipated.

One of the differences between a good romance and a bad one lies in the details that define the lovers' interaction. For a movie to develop a sense of romance, we need to be presented with a continuum of scenes that express the characters' affection for one another, often in subtle, understated ways. Relationships are delicate things, and they have to be developed. Sweet November force-feeds us the connection between Sara & Nelson, even though these two never click. I suppose the big romantic scene is supposed to be when Nelson gives Sara a bundle of early Christmas presents, but this sequence has such a false, manufactured feel that it fails to achieve an emotional impact.

Although this is the second time Reeves and Theron have shared the screen (their previous outing was The Devil's Advocate), there's no discernible chemistry at work. Theron, who has developed into a fine actress, is miscast - asking a statuesque beauty to play a dowdy bohemian is a poor choice. This is the kind of part for which you get an Anne Heche, not a Charlize Theron. Reeves (who has been gradually maturing as an actor) is adequate as Nelson, but he's not quite as convincing as Nicolas Cage was in a similar role in last year's Family Man. Supporting players include Frank Langella as a caricatured bad-ass businessman and Jason Isaacs as the cross-dressing neighbor downstairs.

I suppose it's possible to tolerate (if not entirely enjoy) Sweet November up to the point where the terminal disease plot device is introduced. The early parts of the film aren't especially well-done, yet, for all of their artifice, they're not unbearable. But the heavy-handed final half-hour, coupled with an astoundingly implausible ending, transforms Sweet November from insubstantial-but-inoffensive to embarrassing. People go to romances to experience the vicarious thrill of participating in someone else's passion, not to endure the kind of leaden paces that this movie puts viewers through. This February release offers many flavors - sour and bitter, in particular - but none of them is sweet.

Sweet November (United States, 2001)

Run Time: 1:57
U.S. Release Date: 2001-02-16
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Sexual Content, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1