Two wildly different films — a slick Hollywood love story and a cinema verité immigrant’s tale — explore the same basic idea: romance with a time limit.
Interestingly, Sweet November has a gimmicky, artificial construct (attractive oddball takes in stray men for a month to cure their ills), but Irish director Pat O’Connor (Cal, Circle of Friends, Inventing the Abbotts) has a real feel for romantic stories, and focuses on genuine — and thorny — emotions over saccharine platitudes. Meanwhile, Polish writer-director Pawel Pawlikowski utilizes a spare documentary style and improvised dialogue to create a film which seems to have grown organically around its characters (a Russian woman and her son trapped in bureaucratic limbo in an English seaside town), yet resorts to cheap melodrama to resolve her romance with a local arcade worker.
The original Sweet November, made in 1968 and starring the truly odd couple of Anthony Newley and Sandy Dennis, seems oddly restrained for a product of the burgeoning sexual revolution. While free love was seen as a bohemian given, Puritanism reared its ugly head with a Love Story twist which sought to explain the woman’s wanton behavior in choosing a string of sexual partners. The remake is a looser affair, yet it begins on the same sour note.
Advertising executive Nelson Moss (Keanu Reeves) has just presented a skeptical client with a campaign which utterly sexualizes hot dogs, yet his first reaction to the unconventional offer from Sarah Deever (Charlize Theron) to “be her November” is to basically call her a whore. This is but the first hurdle Moss must stumble over so Deever can teach him how to slow down and simply enjoy life. In a timely twist, Deever is a dot-com burnout who has retreated to San Francisco to relish the remnants of hippie bliss, as evidenced by her vegan diet and fondness for fringed, crocheted shawls.
As the uptight Moss, Reeves is following in the footsteps of Ben Affleck and Mel Gibson (in Bounce and What Women Want, respectively) who recently portrayed work-obsessed ad execs redeemed by unexpected love. But for all its grandiose statements about simple pleasures, Sweet November isn’t any deeper than those films. It’s a well-constructed, effective diversion, but hollow at its core: a weeper without tears, where the truly difficult tasks of love (devotion and sacrifice) are traded in for a spurt of happy memories.
The title of Last Resort is a play on words to describe both a place and a state of mind. After a disastrous stop at a London airport, where her English fiance fails to show up and claim them, a desperate Tanya (Dina Korzun) claims political asylum for herself and her 10-year-old son, Artiom (Artiom Strelnikov). They’re systematically transferred to cold, rainy Stonehaven, where the amusement park is shuttered and the principal industry seems to be housing refugees anxious to be allowed to stay in Britain. Here, Ellis Island meets purgatory, and the wait for that crucial decision can stretch to 18 months.
Seemingly tough, but emotionally fragile, Tanya is barely dealing with the consequences of her latest romantic disaster, and the frustrated Artiom isn’t shy about expressing his displeasure — then Alfie (Paddy Considine) walks into their lives. Managing to be simultaneously shy and forward, he’s smitten with Tanya and enough of a Peter Pan to become fast friends with Artiom. Yet this former boxer with a prison record has also ended up in Stonehaven because he needs a new start.
Last Resort has a pleasantly shambling narrative, as events unfold with the random quality of real life. But there is a script (by Pawlikowski and British television writer Rowan Joffe), and it’s the way the characters are wedged into contrived situations which undercuts the film’s verisimilitude. When Tanya, a children’s book illustrator too enamored with romance, gets involved with cyberporn, it sets off a chain of events which brings her relationship with Alfie into clear relief.
While the couples play attraction-avoidance games, two minor characters steal the show. In Sweet November, Jason Isaacs (magnificently villainous as the sadistic Red Coat in The Patriot) serves as a bridge between Sarah and Nelson, while astutely skirting gay-best-friend clichés, even when sporting a green sequined dress. In Last Resort, Lindsey Honey (in real life, a well-known British pornographer) manipulates Tanya with an oily seductiveness that would make Eve’s snake proud. With Eden as their romantic template, no wonder men and women can’t get it right.
Last Resort, the debut film of this season’s Shooting Gallery Film Series, opens Friday exclusively at the Star Rochester Hills (200 Barclay Circle, Rochester Hills). Call 248-853-2260.
E-mail Serena Donadoni at firstname.lastname@example.org.