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'Sweet November'

Setting adds charm to familiar love story, 'Sweet November'

Friday, February 16, 2001

By Barry Paris, Post-Gazette Movie Critic

Ah, sweet mystery of life -- in or out of November -- that you can meet the man and/or woman of your dreams at the Motor Vehicle Department, taking a driver's test. Even though you might not know it at the time.

'Sweet November'

RATING: PG-13 for sexual themes

STARRING: Keanu Reeves, Charlize Theron, Liam Aiken

DIRECTOR: Pat O'Connor




When high-powered ad exec Keanu Reeves whispers over to Charlize Theron for one of the answers, it is SHE who gets caught and kicked for cheating -- and subsequently haunts him at his apartment to make up for it by giving her a few rides. But it's more than a life she wants; it's his heart and soul, just for one month.

She'll get both in director Pat O'Connor's "Sweet November," a disarmingly charming romance whose initial mystery is why Sara (Theron) would want Nelson (Reeves) at all. He's a nasty, superficial, self-absorbed jerk -- unsympathetic in every way -- while she's a Georgy Girl-type free spirit, the kind who loves dogs and does cartwheels on the beach. Turns out her goal is missionary: "I gave a gift for helping men with problems."

"I don't have any problems," he replies at first, rejecting her missionary gift and position alike.

"Who's there for you in a scary situation?" she asks, after encountering his obnoxious, parasitical friend Vince (Greg Germann, of TV's "Ally McBeal).

"I don't put myself in 'scary situations,' " he answers.

But he's secretly scared, she's nothing if not persistent, and when he gets fired for proposing the world's worst hot-dog promotional campaign (the same day his girlfriend walks out on him), he and his shallow life have nothing more to lose. The last time he spent a whole day outdoors, he confesses, was at age 9 when his parents took him to see Alcatraz.

There are co-stars to help and hinder romance along the way -- good pals and transvestite neighbors upstairs, among them -- but no supporting player is more important than the city of San Francisco itself and the amorous backdrops it provides: Looking out at the Bay Bridge and nighttime skyline, you could fall in love with Dick Cheney or Roseanne Barr if you tried a little.

The deconstruction of Nelson's defenses is otherwise aided by a lovely young fatherless boy named Abner (Liam Aiken), who'd melt anyone's heart. One of the film's sweetest scenes is the secret assistance Nelson gives him to win a model boat race that he's born to lose.

In movie history, there's no shortage of pictures in which a liberated, unconventional girl shows an uptight guy how to live. This one is, in fact, a remake of a so-so 1968 film of the same name with the unlikely duo of Sandy Dennis and Anthony Newley in the leads. This second time around would be little better than a cliche if it weren't for the surprising commitment that Reeves and Theron bring to their paradigmatic roles.

In the hands of director O'Connor ("A Month in the Country," "Dancing at Lughnasa"), it has the delicate merits of Christopher Young's beautiful soundtrack to go along with Ed Lachman's beautiful photography.

Such merits, all in all, make you almost -- but not quite -- forget its treacly similarities to "Love Story" in the final reel.

Bring the Kleenex.

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