Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson in Something's Gotta GiveSOMETHING'S GOTTA GIVE

In Something's Gotta Give, a sixtysomething womanizer, currently dating a twentysomething auctioneer (!), finds himself, for the first time ever, falling in love with a woman roughly his age, and - wouldn't ya know it? - it's his girlfriend's mother! Has there ever been so High a Concept? A forced, jokey premise like this is usually enough to make me hide under my theater seat; it's a situation so nakedly designed to provide good-natured chuckles and muffled sobs that a hardened cynic like me walks into the movie with all defenses immediately up.

And, in many ways, my initial reactions were on the money. A lot of writer-director Nancy Meyers' staging is obvious and gross (she pushes the comedic sight of our hero walking bare-assed through hospital corridors well past its breaking point), all the plot "twists" are pro forma, and the movie's a good 20 minutes too long to boot; it's like sitcom as mini-series. What I wasn't prepared for, however, was how deeply stars Jack Nicholson and, particularly, Diane Keaton would better their material. Through talent, comic chutzpah, dramatic integrity, and sheer force of personality, Nicholson and Keaton, aided by a first-rate supporting cast, make Something's Gotta Give not just entertaining but spectacularly so, and I'd be lying if I didn't admit to often laughing out loud and blubbering like a baby exactly when Meyers and company wanted me to. Damn it.

That Nicholson is terrific is nothing new. But there's a particularly happy gleam in his eyes here - a looseness, a spontaneity - that's unlike anything we've seen from him in two decades (since his similar gallivanting with Shirley MacLaine in Terms of Endearment), and that gleam, it's apparent, is Diane Keaton. It's completely understandable: Keaton is ravishingly funny and sexy and smart, with that infectious giggle that's still able to produce untameable euphoria in any viewer, and she turns what could have been a stock character into a veritable aria of conflicting emotions and desires; in what should have been a piece of mass-audience piffle, Keaton gives the female performance of the year. Against all expectations, Nicholson and Keaton expand and explode the conventions of Something's Gotta Give - with this duo in the leads, the film expresses the comedy and pathos of growing older far better than last year's unjustly celebrated About Schmidt - and the brilliant Frances McDormand (with not nearly enough screen time), Amanda Peet (ever-delectable), and Keanu Reeves (perfectly cast as Nicholson's sweet romantic rival) back them up with superlative skill. Better movies have been released this year, but you'd have to search long and hard for one that'll satisfy audiences as completely as this one.


Jessica Alba in HoneyHONEY

There aren't many - maybe not any - story surprises in Something's Gotta Give, but that's not necessarily a detriment; the predictability becomes part of the film's sitcom appeal. (If audiences believed there was even a chance of Diane Keaton's character ending up miserable and alone they'd tear the theater apart.) The predictability of the inspirational-romantic-musical-comedy-drama Honey, however, is completely surprising; I'm not sure what, exactly, I expected, but it's safe to say that the last thing I anticipated was an updated Shirley Temple vehicle in hip-hop drag. What starts as a silly, amusing Flashdance reversal - our dancing heroine, the unspeakably dedicated and devoted Honey (Jessica Alba), has a rigid mother who wants her to pursue professional ballet, but instead pines for career longevity as a background dancer in music videos - quickly turns into a You Go Girl! soap opera involving Honey's attempts, through the liberating pulse of club music, to make a better life for the disenfranchised (yet talented!) kids from her neighborhood; Alba's Honey becomes Spencer Tracy's Father Flanagan, Sidney Poitier's Sir, and Kevin Bacon's Ren rolled up into one cuddly, determined, move-bustin' package. There's no way in creation that anyone could take this movie seriously, but I can't imagine we're meant to; Honey is nothing more than a goofy, lightweight excuse to watch Jessica Alba groove with her pants riding 18 inches below her navel. (Nearly every man I know would pay double the ticket price for said opportunity.) For what it is, the film is embarrassingly enjoyable enough - it could become a sleepover-night staple for 11-year-olds everywhere - but you should be warned that there's not nearly as much dancing as you might want, and the moves we are witness to - the ones that propel Honey to superstardom in record time - aren't anything the Fly Girls weren't doing on In Living Color more than a decade ago. Yet Honey, ridiculous and eye-rollingly clichéd as it is, isn't without charm; it's like a grade-school pageant, where you can bemoan the production itself and still find it impossible to wipe the grin from your face.

Holly Hunter and Evan Rachel Wood in ThirteenTHIRTEEN

Catherine Hardwicke's Thirteen, currently at the Brew & View after playing the art-house circuit this past fall, concerns the meteoric emotional decline of junior-high-school student Trace (Evan Rachel Wood), a quintessential Good Girl who, through the combined desire of wanting to fit in and wanting to stand out, degenerates into a drug-taking, foul-mouthed, sexually promiscuous creature whom her hapless, hippie mother (Holly Hunter) can no longer control. Happy holidays from the Brew & View! Seriously, though, Thirteen proves to be a sensational feat of filmmaking, with raw, aching portrayals all around, and should be required viewing for all parents of pre-teens; it's like the most blisteringly realistic after-school special you've ever seen. Though a few sequences are forced and overly stylized - Trace and her friends strut in slow-motion tandem like the hoods in Reservoir Dogs - the film, like its teenaged protagonist, doesn't feature an ounce of fat. It's a mean, lean piece of work, and it moves with a breakneck speed that's nearly intoxicating; I don't think there's a dull moment in the picture.

Thirteen might have been excruciating, as Boys Don't Cry often was, if not for Hardwicke's unerring sense of rhythm and pacing, but the movie also benefits from a smart, succinct script by Hardwicke and Nikki Reed (13 herself when she co-wrote, and impressive in the film as Trace's best friend), and performances by Hunter and Wood that couldn't be improved on. Hunter, standing in for an entire generation of mothers who walk the shaky line between parent and friend, provides a staggeringly tough study in maternal paralysis, and the prodigiously talented Wood is revelatory. Unlike, say, the kids of Larry Clark's oeuvre, she's able to appear completely naturalistic while never letting you forget that she is, in fact, an actress; your heart breaks for Trace, but Evan Rachel Wood's laudable professionalism keeps the role, and the film, from ever being masochistic. Much praise to her and, not least of all, to the folks at the Brew & View, whose bookings have made the cinematic year of 2003 infinitely more rewarding for area film fans.

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