If you cast Keanu Reeves in a film with the expectation of him actually being good, you’d better have a role that fits comfortably within his limited range. Take, for instance, the films in which the notorious laughing stock has actually been passable or better: the “Bill and Ted” films, which made ideal use of his natural blankness for laughs; “Speed” and “The Matrix,” which used his inexpressiveness as a veneer of toughness; and the recent “The Gift”… well, credit must go to Sam Raimi for pushing the non-acting actor into effectively playing a villainous part no one would think he could ever pull off.
Then there’s the strange matter of the 1995 romance “A Walk in the Clouds.” Technically speaking, Reeves is his usually horrible self; witness the embarrassing “Don’t you realize how alive she is? How ‘special’ she is?” monologue to see just how wrong he is for the part of a soulful ex-G.I. Yet somehow those disastrous displays were forgivable in the end, and that’s because he had such superb chemistry with leading lady Aitana Sanchez-Gijon. From their first gaze, those two smoldered, and when it comes to swoony love stories, that’s what counts. “Sweet November,” a remake of the 1968 weepie of the same name, is a like-minded film that once again finds Reeves in a part clearly not suited for him: Nelson Moss, a selfish, flamboyant, workaholic advertising executive. The difference here is that there is no romantic rapport to redeem his woeful work or the film itself.
The lack of spark should come as no surprise, for Reeves’ “November” co-star is Charlize Theron, with whom he previously teamed-and displayed little chemistry-in the supernatural thriller “The Devil’s Advocate.” She plays Sara Deever, the type of kooky free spirit who always comes into the life of the uptight protagonist not only at just the right time, but in an oh-so-contrived “Meet Cute” scenario: they initially encounter each other as they take a DMV written exam. Somehow sensing the stress in his life, Sara makes him an unusual offer: to be the latest in string of one-month-only lovers. For a mere 30 days, she will attempt to make his life easier and give him all the benefits of having a female companion (read: limitless sex), and in return all he has to do is devote just about every waking moment of said time period with her. Once the time expires, so does their relationship, with no questions asked, no hard feelings.
So why exactly does Sara do this? The trailers and television spots have made the reason abundantly clear, and there’s no reason for me to spoil the late-in-film revelation for those few still interested in seeing this film. But even with her motivation in mind, the premise seems overly mechanical, not to mention dated. The modern-day accoutrements (cell phones, a transvestite neighbor/best friend for Sara) brought in by director Pat O’Connor and screenwriters Kurt Voelker and Paul Yurick to update the story actually hurt the film even more. In this contemporary context, nothing about Sara (aside from promiscuity-according-to-schedule) seems terribly eccentric. She’s a single twentysomething. She’s a pet groomer. She has a lot of plants. She has a fondness for scarves. How any of these rather run-of-the-mill qualities can make some ice cold slickster somehow change his whole way of thinking is hard to swallow.
Of course, there is the fact that Sara comes in the gorgeous form of Theron, but this usually capable actress manages to make Sara’s perceived quirkiness less than charming. Theron tries too hard to be flighty and daffy, and as such Sara appears to be putting on some forced act, not to mention a bit too pushy. Reeves’ “efforts” fail to make the strained attraction any more natural-not that anything about his work in this film can remotely fall into that description. His stiff yet overdone swagger as Norman “A” is ridiculous; try not to laugh when he lets loose what is supposed to be an evil, mischievous cackle toward his boss. With the abrupt change to sensitive Norman “B” comes the flip side: instead of overdoing it, Reeves reverts to his usual screen catatonia.
When it comes to these movie romances, however, chemistry between leads holds a lot of redemptive value. Unfortunately, Reeves and Theron are as tepid together here as they were in their last collaboration. They fail to convince that what we are told are growing feelings between Nelson and Sara are indeed signs of true love, let alone some sweeping, larger-than-life, world-changing passion. Considering the film’s fairly effective and unusually (for this genre) understated close, “Sweet November” could very well have been one primo slice of melodramatic manipulation with the right pair of actors. Then again, I imagine that already happened-back in 1968.