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Something's Gotta Give

Written by Sally Thomason

Directed by Nancy Meyers,
Warner Bros. Pictures, PG-13 rating

"Jack Nicholson at his best."

"Heartwarming and funny."

"Diane Keaton is extraordinary."

The comments of friends are correct. Something's Gotta Give, a lighthearted, humorous depiction of the dilemmas faced by two characters growing old in a youth-oriented culture, is good entertainment. And more. It also offers an insightful exploration of mature love. In a subtle, heartwarming way, Nancy Meyers' writing and direction reaches beyond the well-acted, yet predictable plot and gives us a glimpse of the mysterious forces upon which an authentic relationship is built. She does not deny the allure of youth and beauty, but she also shows us that true joy lies at a deeper, mysterious, not-easily-understood and often-feared level of our being.

Climbing inside the story is as easy as settling back in your seat. At 63 Harry Sanborn (Jack Nicholson) has never married. Having made a fortune in the music industry, he is a bon-vivant who devotes most of his energy and resources to the conquest and enjoyment of young (under 30), eager and willing beauties. From the opening credits we are dazzled with shots of gorgeous "knock–em-dead" young females. In the first scene one of these icons of perfection comes to life as extremely attractive, free-thinking Marin Barry (Amanda Peet), daughter of the famous playwright Erica Barry (Diane Keaton). Marin has invited Sanford to her mother's posh beach house in the Hamptons for a "relaxing weekend," but their casual tryst is interrupted when Erica and her sister Zoe unexpectedly arrive at the house for a few days of writing.

None too pleased with how things are working out, Harry immediately offers, in fact insists, that he leave, but the women have other ideas. After an embarrassing discussion over a couple of glasses of wine, the four decide that they should all stay at the house and carry on with their original plans—Erica and sister Zoe in the kitchen and at their writing desks, Harry and Marin elsewhere.

Yet no sooner are Marin and Harry alone, when a cry for "Mother" brings Erica out of the kitchen to find Harry on the floor suffering a heart attack. After being admitted to a nearby hospital, Harry is told by his attending physician, played by Keanu Reeves, that he can only be released if he stays in the vicinity. Over Erica's obvious displeasure, Harry is transported back to her house to convalesce. The weekend over, Marin and Zoe leave the Hamptons to return to their city jobs. The ensuing developments in the relationship between Erica and Harry from near loathing, to mutual mistrust, to tentative overtures, to curious explorations, to friendly engagement, to passionate love making, and finally to comfortable companionship are predictable and delightful.

Yes, it's a good story, but there's more here than appears at first glance. Something's Gotta Give tells of two people risking their well-honed social/professional self images and stepping out of their comfort zone to take a leap of faith into a new relationship, a relationship that feels totally alien. To take such risk is scary. The success rate is low, the hurt rate high. It is difficult to portray such a leap of faith cinematically. Film by its very nature only portrays surface action. But through the two hours of this movie we witness the structure of two people's egos, crafted over years of successful living, crack open to allow contact with their core selves buried deep within and connection with an another soul. We witness the fear, struggle and ultimate liberation that comes with such personal risk. Breaking through to love, both human and divine is not easy, but if our efforts are sincere, the reward is a gift that is beyond value. In his book Crossing: Reclaiming the Landscape of Our Lives, author Mark Barrett reminds us that "modern culture is not very open to the symbolic interpretation of experience....We see the surface, but we do not know how to understand the depths." At first it seems that Erica's relationship to Harry signifies only a chink in her shell of self-control, a slight deviation from the zipped-up lifestyle she has lived so far. Erica's well-crafted persona has protected her from true intimacy, and it has also concealed her core self. The movie's action is so consistent with expected plot development that one pivotal scene's powerful symbolism might easily be overlooked. In the heat of passion, Erica asks Harry to take scissors and cut through her turtleneck sweater. Symbolically she is asking him to cut through her protective armor, her lifestyle. In so doing, she makes herself vulnerable and it changes her life. She opens herself up to hurt. And hurt comes.

When Harry regains his strength he leaves the Hamptons to return to what he deems to be his "real" self. He wants to resume his former lifestyle, but something has happened to him as well. Emotional upheaval, self-questioning, doubt and confusion culminate in a number of acute stress attacks that he fears are repeats of his previous heart rupture—at a very deep level they are. Harry's whole life is falling, has fallen apart. Should, could, he change his Casanovian personality to connect with one woman, the type of woman he never before considered attractive? Or for that matter, never considered.

Something's Gotta Give has a fairy tale, "Hollywood" ending, but like all folk tales it carries a profound lesson for life. We are reminded that love, both human and divine, comes when we break away from defining ourselves by ego-cultivated images to live responsively from the core of our deeper selves. Carl Jung told us that individuals during their first forty years learn to live in the world, accommodate to their culture and accomplish material, professional and personal goals by building a persona, an ego. Building a healthy ego in the first half of life is an essential part of human development. It is the way we learn to relate to the world and become effective people.

The problem is that when all our effort goes to understanding and affecting the outer world, we lose contact with our inner selves, with the mysterious, non-rational depths of our being that is the realm of authentic love. In order to recapture that connection, to allow for the experience and expression of true love, we cannot continue to live on a surface level. As the movie title so aptly states, if we are to live who we are, not who we have created as a product of our culture, something's gotta give.

Copyright ©2003 Sally Thomason