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'Something's Gotta Give' is a glossy sitcom

Keaton stars as a woman being wooed by Nicholson and Reeves. By John Hartl

The title of Diane Keaton’s new movie, “Something’s Gotta Give,” is curiously close to that of the doomed, unfinished Marilyn Monroe vehicle, “Something’s Got to Give,” which ended Monroe’s career. The two pictures otherwise have nothing in common, so why recycle such a cursed title?

Especially when Keaton’s movie needs all the luck it can get. Like so many comedies written and/or directed by Nancy Meyers (“Baby Boom,” “What Women Want”), it’s a glossy, gimmicky sitcom, unnecessarily padded out to a couple of hours.

The only reasons to see it: two actresses who have been agreeably cast as sisters. Keaton plays Erica Barry, an aging Broadway writer who is reputedly the most successful female playwright since Lillian Hellman. Frances McDormand is Erica’s articulate sibling, Zoe, a college professor who specializes in withering feminist putdowns.

Keaton’s role is large. McDormand’s, alas, is small, but she humanizes Zoe's extremes and makes her count. After a dinner-table speech in which Zoe does a demolition job on an unwelcome male guest, McDormand all but disappears from the movie, only to be brought back to push the story along.

The guest/victim is Harry Sanborn, a 63-year-old playboy played by Jack Nicholson, who appears to be sampling several of his previous roles, among them the philandering anti-hero of “Carnal Knowledge” and the misanthropic writer of “As Good as It Gets.” Nicholson isn’t exactly uninteresting, but he brings little that’s fresh to the party.

The same is true of Keanu Reeves, as a suave doctor who treats Harry for a heart attack and later becomes his romantic rival, and Amanda Peet as Erica’s bubbleheaded daughter, who is dating Harry before he gets involved with her mother. It doesn’t help that the roles Reeves and Peet have been assigned are essentially puppets, jerked into place whenever the plot requires it.

Keaton, fortunately, is in her prime, and she gets to play a character who changes considerably in the course of the story. Erica is set in her ways, a single woman who is resigned to living alone, when she finds herself attracted to both Harry and the doctor.

Keaton is at her most effective when Erica is at her most vulnerable, joining Harry for an impromptu late-night pancake snack that is accidentally interrupted by her daughter. Her sudden exit from this awkward scene is both gracious and touching; it’s one of the few emotional moments in the movie that feels earned.

“Something’s Gotta Give” is partially a remake of “The Man Who Came to Dinner,” as Erica acknowledges when she claims to be reliving a Kaufman-Hart play. Following his heart attack, Harry is obliged to stay at Erica’s home to recuperate, and their proximity (plus a Hamptons beach walk) is supposed to cancel out their initial hostility to each other. Keaton almost makes their unlikely mutual attraction credible.

What she can’t salvage is the movie’s plodding pace, or Meyers’ bumbling attempts to write and direct herself out of an absurd finale. In the end, Keaton is too genuine to sell this contrivance.