As a woman, I'm supposed to be the target audience for "Sweet November." It is, after all, about the strength of the human spirit and the life-changing power of love. It even has an Enya song on the soundtrack.
Instead of being moved to tears, however, I was moved mostly to laughter, alternating with bouts of queasiness and boredom. So either I'm a disgrace to my gender, or this movie bites.
I'm going with the latter.
The plot of "Sweet November" is contrived and kind of bizarre at times, it plays like a Lifetime TV adaptation of a Penthouse Forum letter. Nelson Moss (Keanu Reeves) is a selfish workaholic who cares only about money and status symbols. One day he gets stuck renewing his license at the DMV, where he meets Sara Deever (Charlize Theron), a pretty bohemian flake who demands a ride home from him after he causes her to fail her written test. He reluctantly agrees, but she's not ready to stop there. See, Sara likes to "help" men by taking them into her home for one month, during which time they will be transformed into better human beings. All they have to do is follow her rules and give up their connections to the outside world. There's even free sex involved.
Since his career is going down the tubes anyway, Nelson accepts Sara's offer, and the two of them start to fall in love. Of course, she has a devastating secret that threatens to destroy their happiness. Anyone familiar with the original 1968 version of this film will know what that means. Actually, anyone who has seen a "chick flick" in the past 40 years will know what that means.
Even if you can swallow this premise, there's still the matter of the main characters. There may very well be people like this in the universe, but would any sane person want to spend two hours with them, let alone a month? Sure, Sara has a heart of gold, but she's also stupendously annoying. If this were a comedy, she'd be the Katharine Hepburn character from "Bringing Up Baby," whose lunatic behavior is supposed to be seen as just that. Since this is a drama, however, Sara is portrayed as having great clarity and insight, a sort of purity that only people who harass strangers and make a lot of noise in public can apparently possess.
Nelson is, by contrast, rather dull, at least by the time the movie's over. He's a full-fledged jerk early on, but once he loses that edge, he doesn't have much personality left. For once, this isn't Reeves' fault, either his performance is actually pretty good (those dramatic skills he learned on "The Gift" have carried over). The problem lies where it usually does, in the script and direction. Screenwriter Kurt Voelker and director Pat O'Connor ("Dancing at Lughnasa") are purveyors of greeting-card banality, not interesting characters, and they drown everything in the kind of treacly romanticism that destroys any hope of complexity.
The leads are completely overshadowed by the supporting cast, especially Greg Germann ("Ally McBeal") as Nelson's sleazy business partner and Liam Aiken as a cute kid who turns Nelson into a fairly competent father figure. Best of all, however, is Jason Isaacs (the villain from "The Patriot"), whose turn as Sara's transvestite neighbor will certainly lay to rest any questions about his versatility. These smaller roles actually threaten to make this movie fun to watch alas, the focus always goes back to our doomed lovers. Too bad.
There is something vaguely unsettling about movies like "Sweet November," with their shallow emotional manipulation and obsession with suffering. In fact, someone could probably write a fascinating scholarly analysis of why these weepy melodramas seem to appeal to so many people, especially those with two X chromosomes.
I think I'll just go watch "The Terminator" instead.