Sweet November is the latest entry from Hollywood’s remake factory, which appears to choose projects based not on any crying need for a fresh rendering, but more on the basis of whether today’s mostly twenty-something audiences were alive when the original version first screened. The 1969 original starred Sandy Dennis and Anthony Newley in a sentimental but sometimes genuinely poignant tale of two star-crossed lovers in New York. The remake shifts locale to San Francisco and replaces the protagonists with Charlize Theron and Keanu Reeves. It’s a pale shell of the first film, patently false and manipulative beyond the normal bounds of tear-jerking normally allotted the genre.
Nelson Moss (Reeves) is an upper echelon advertising executive addicted to adrenaline and 80-hour work weeks, the kind of guy who has bathroom breaks scheduled in his PalmPilot and a cell phone in the shower. In this week’s version of a "meet cute" he encounters Sara Deever (Theron) while they’re both taking their DMV license-renewal test – his attempts to grill her for answers gets her thrown out of the exam. As she’s without transportation until she can re-take the test in a month, she figures it’s only fair to show up at Nelson’s door at 1:00 AM whenever she needs a ride. Sara is Nelson’s female doppelganger, she’s as free-spirited and relaxed as he is anal, cruel and withdrawn. She senses his hidden unhappiness and makes a bold offer: Nelson should drop everything – job, girlfriend, swank apartment – and move in with her for a month. Why – because she wants to help him. Surely all he’s missing is… the love of a good woman. And this is an assignment that Sara has willingly taken on several times before. Nelson rejects her, but soon recants after he’s fired following a stormy meltdown during a presentation for a crucial client.
In a story built on such an implausible premise, a large portion of its credibility depends on how genuine its characters’ emotions appear. And this is where the film stumbles. Reeves has one facial expression: sheetrock. This can suffice when he’s playing Neo in The Matrix or a back-country oaf in The Gift, but here the situation calls for actors who can portray several relatively complex emotions and the gradual transitions between them. Reeves is quite simply overmatched. Charlize Theron tries much harder but has been dressed up like Carol Burnett’s washerwoman and forced to chirp platitudes like "Look at that, Nelson. It’s life, it’s just happening around us all the time."
Kurt Voelker’s script (based on Herman Raucher’s original) doesn’t help much. It’s larded with stock poignant situations that leave little room for the characters to develop.The film plays like an episode of TV’s Dharma and Greg stretched to feature length. Pat O’Connor’s direction is unremarkable, save for one of the most annoyingly edited flashback scenes in recent memory.
Two supporting performances are of note. Greg Germann transplants his Ally McBeal TV persona to the big screen perfectly intact, giving casting directors little reason to use him in the future. But Jason Isaacs (The Patriot) infuses his role as Sara’s downstairs neighbor with intelligence and quiet wit despite being saddled with a knee-jerk stereotypical scene. This is San Francisco, so somebody’s got to be a transvestite, right?
It’s been reported that post-production decisions shifted the film from a PG-13 to an R rating, which might explain some of the story holes. But what remains of the R footage is used in a regrettably crass fashion that largely undermines whatever residual sweetness the story might otherwise have retained. Several scenes of Sara and Nelson in bed stand in jarring counterpoint to the largely platonic relationship shown in the rest of the film; they’re totally out of place.
At one point in the proceedings, Nelson asks Sara how she selected the duration of her periodic rehab relationships. She replies that a month is "long enough to be meaningful, short enough to stay out of trouble." Unfortunately, Sweet November is neither.
– Bob Aulert