Strange things can happen when you’re stuck in a house with someone. It’s a lesson people all across the world are learning right now, and it’s one Nancy Meyers already taught us way back in her 2003 romantic comedy Something’s Gotta Give. Against her better judgment, brilliant but neurotic fiftysomething playwright Erica Barry (Diane Keaton) falls for chauvinistic sixtysomething playboy Harry Sanborn (Jack Nicholson) after he’s ordered to recuperate from a heart attack at her Hamptons beach house. The two couldn’t be more different, and yet their semi-isolation leads to a passionate affair. Between the pajama parties, midnight pancakes, spontaneous crying sessions, and a salute to medical professionals via Keanu Reeves as one of cinema’s dreamiest doctors, Something’s Gotta Give has never felt more relevant.
Meyers recently became a bit of a quarantine content sensation when she shared an Instagram photo of her real-life kitchen, which had served as inspiration for the one in Something’s Gotta Give. Her films are known for their gorgeous production design, particularly their kitchens, and the glimpse into Meyers’ real-life cooking arena (complete with two separate islands!) inspired praise, interviews, and even a meditation on wealth and loneliness. That interest in the minutia of Meyers’ life speaks to the fact that she’s one of the few genuine auteurs of the romantic comedy genre. She has a style and a thematic focus clear to even casual viewers. Scorsese has his long takes and gangsters, Spike Lee has his double dolly shots and fourth wall breaks, and Nancy Meyers has her white turtlenecks, giant kitchens, and neurotic divorcées.
Something’s Gotta Give is the film where Meyers’ auteurism first snapped into focus, and it’s also her most personal work. Meyers came up through Hollywood as a screenwriter with her husband and writing partner, Charles Shyer. The duo penned hits such as Private Benjamin, Baby Boom, and Father Of The Bride, many of which Shyer directed. But they divorced mid-production of The Parent Trap, the film where Meyers made her directorial debut. Nervous about striking out on her own, she decided to rewrite and direct an existing script called What Women Want. The 2000 Mel Gibson vehicle became the then-highest-grossing romantic comedy of all time and the highest-grossing film directed by a woman. Empowered by that success, Meyers set out to channel some of her own experiences into a screenplay.
Keaton’s Erica is a famous playwright whose ex-husband directed all her plays. She’s settled into a contented if lonely life as a divorcée—characterized by white turtleneck sweaters that seem to warn the world to keep its distance. But her world is turned upside down when her 29-year-old daughter Marin (Amanda Peet) crashes the family beach house with her new 63-year-old boyfriend Harry, a hip hop label owner who refuses to date anyone over 30 and who was once profiled by New York Magazine for his refusal to settle down. (When Erica is impressed to learn he was once engaged to Diane Sawyer, Harry smirks, “Women your age love that about me.”) Over a tense dinner of impeccably styled clam linguine, Erica’s sister Zoe (Frances McDormand)—a Columbia University women’s studies professor—lays out the thesis of the film:
The whole over-50 dating scene is geared towards men, leaving older women out. And as a result, the women become more and more productive, and therefore, more and more interesting. Which, in turn, makes them even less desirable because, as we all know, men, especially older men, are threatened and deathly afraid of productive and interesting women. It is just so clear. Single older women as a demographic are about as fucked a group as can ever exist.
Meyers acknowledges that grim reality before turning it on its head. As a post-heart attack Harry starts to fall for Erica, so does his dreamy 36-year-old doctor, Julian Mercer (Keanu Reeves). Erica—who’d long thought the sex and love portion of her life was over—suddenly finds herself at the center of a passionate love triangle.
“She’s a pioneer with regard to representing older women,” Keaton explained in a 2009 New York Times profile of Meyers. “She’s the only one delivering the fantasy for women over 55. You’re beautiful, charming, and you get two guys instead of one.” Before Something’s Gotta Give, the romantic comedy genre had long and largely limited itself to teens and twenty- and thirtysomethings, with the occasional spot reserved for an older man. (A few years earlier, Nicholson had won an Oscar for his performance as a misanthropic obsessive-compulsive in the James L. Brooks rom-com, As Good As It Gets.) Meyers used her Hollywood clout to open up a whole new avenue of storytelling. “I just think that people falling in love late in life is as real and powerful as it is when they’re 25,” she explained.
Something’s Gotta Give was a massive box office hit and earned an Oscar nomination for Keaton, launching a third act of her career and paving the way for a whole new genre of over-50 (and -60 and -70) romances, with movies like Book Club and series like Grace And Frankie. Though Meyers has so far only made one other film about an over-50 divorcé (the Meryl Streep-led It’s Complicated), her association with late-in-life romances stuck. So even though her subsequent films like The Holiday and The Intern branched out a bit in their focus (if not the diversity of their casts), Something’s Gotta Give remains the defining Nancy Meyers movie.
Meyers wrote the script with her two stars in mind, and their roles riff on their respective public personas—Nicholson as a caddish playboy and Keaton as a neurotic yet independent type. The original draft was 250 pages long, which Meyers eventually pared down to a shaggy two-hour-and-eight-minutes runtime. Like a lot of Meyers’ films, Something Gotta Give defies a conventional three-act structure and goes on about 40 minutes longer than it needs to. Characters and subplots are introduced and dropped at random. Half of Harry’s character arc takes place offscreen during a six-month time jump.
Yet there’s something undeniably cohesive about Meyers’ vision. She’s a famously meticulous director who operates on the François Truffaut philosophy: “Making movies is an accumulation of details.” She works on lengthy timeframes with big budgets, and she shoots a huge amount of coverage to give herself more options in the editing room. She’s famously obsessive about even the smallest aspects of costuming and production design—although her “iron fist in a velvet glove” approach creates a positive, encouraging work environment, rather than a dictatorial one. Her aesthetic favors cream colors, cozy knitwear, and airy environments. Above all, she prioritizes softness, to the point of digitally erasing every spiky plant from the backyard of It’s Complicated.
While Meyers is often compared to Nora Ephron—the other major female auteur of the rom-com genre—I think a more apt comparison is Richard Curtis, the creative force behind movies like Love Actually, Notting Hill, and Four Weddings And A Funeral. Both filmmakers prefer gloss to grit, and both assume that their wealthy worlds are relatable in a way that can either be charming or off-putting. (Something’s Gotta Give features a scene of Erica casually speaking French with a cheese monger at the Hampton’s Barefoot Contessa market.) And as with Curtis, Meyers seems to use her love-interest characters to work through a very specific fixation. For Curtis, it’s aloof American women, and for Meyers, it’s old school, Rat Pack-inspired “men’s men,” like Mel Gibson in What Women Want, Alec Baldwin in It’s Complicated, and Robert De Niro in The Intern.
Nicholson’s cigar-chomping, skirt-chasing Harry is the pinnacle of Meyers’ lovable rogues. He’s what A.O. Scott called a “devilish combination of high-spirited rakishness and old-school gallantry.” And while Meyers’ films often force these men to reform, it’s crucial that they don’t change too much either. Though Erica has the chance to be with the model of 21st-century sensitive masculinity in Julian, the heart wants what it wants, and in her case it wants some old-school swagger, or at least someone who’s willing to butt heads with her rather than just fawn over her.
The key to Erica and Harry’s romance is their shared life experience. The film’s best scenes center on the two of them improbably stuck together in her impossibly beautiful house, communicating from separate rooms via Instant Messenger or negotiating boundaries after he accidentally sees her naked. They’re surprised to find that they have things in common, including an inability to sleep through the night and a reliance on reading glasses. Romancing someone his own age means Harry can have an actual conversation with his paramour for once. (He compliments Erica on being the funniest girl he ever had sex with.) And when he describes her as a flinty, formidable tower of strength, she replies, “I can’t decide if you hate me, or if you’re, like, the only person who ever really got me.”
Something’s Gotta Give very much celebrates the wisdom of age. While Marin is totally out of her depth during Harry’s heart attack, Erica jumps into the fray with the confidence of someone who’s been through many a medical emergency. Before Erica and Harry have sex for the first time, she pauses mid-foreplay to check his blood pressure—something it’s hard to imagine any of his young conquests doing. Yet Meyers turns that moment of practicality into its own kind of romantic fantasy. Erica giddily throws the blood pressure cuff into the air when she sees its encouraging numbers.
Of course, the downside of age is that Harry and Erica are stuck in their ways and well-practiced in their defense mechanisms. Over the course of the film, they have to relearn how to be emotionally vulnerable—him after his heart attack forces him to confront his morality and her after their tryst reawakens a part of her she thought was gone forever. “I don’t want my bearings,” Erica shouts at Harry when he tries to pump the breaks on their week-long affair. “I’ve had my bearings my whole goddamn life. I felt something with you that I never really knew existed. Do you know what that’s like, after a 20 year marriage?”
When Harry refuses to commit, Meyers delivers a hilarious montage of Erica sobbing her way through months of playwriting, channeling her newfound emotional openness into the best writing she’s done in years. (Meyers once claimed that sequence was basically a representation of how she wrote the movie itself.) If the film’s nonsensical title means anything at all, it’s that you can’t hide away from life forever. It’s advice Erica passes on to her closed-off daughter in one of the film’s sweetest scenes. “You don’t actually think that you can outsmart getting hurt, do you?” Erica asks. “You can’t hide from love for the rest of your life because maybe it won’t work out, because maybe you’ll become unglued. It’s just not a way to live.”
Meyers’ films are often interested in close parent/child relationships. (She named the twins in The Parent Trap after her own real-life daughters.) But while in any other rom-com, Marin would be the lead and Erica would be the thinly developed supporting character, here it’s the opposite. Of course, that doesn’t entirely erase the weirdness of the fact that Something’s Gotta Give hinges on a mother dating her daughter’s ex-boyfriend. Lest we be too creeped out, Meyers takes three different opportunities to emphasize that Marin and Harry never had sex. But as with a lot of aspects of Meyers’ filmmaking, it’s the sort of thing you just have to be willing to get onboard with if you want to enjoy the over-the-top fantasy she’s presenting.
As with Richard Curtis, the wish fulfillment of Meyers’ films can seem cloying and ridiculous if you can’t lock into the film’s semi-zany wavelength. (You also have to accept the hotly contested ending of Erica choosing Nicholson’s character over Reeves’—a decision the film justifies, but just barely.) As in many a classic romantic comedy, Meyers’ women are rewarded with love when they stop looking for it. And that’s one place where her onscreen avatars diverge from her own reality. Meyers has never remarried and recently wrote a slightly bittersweet Modern Love column about the experiencing of becoming friends with her ex-husband again after years apart.
Meyers’ philosophy as a filmmaker is perhaps best summed up by a line she gives to Erica, who says of her latest play, “People need romance like that and if somebody like me doesn’t write it where are they gonna get it? Real life?” There’s an aspirational quality to both the worlds and the love stories of Meyers’ films, although she’s quick to point out that they’re no more aspirational than the dozens of Hollywood comedies that pair an immature man-child with a gorgeous, accomplished woman. The comforting vision of Something’s Gotta Give is yet another thing that makes it a fitting quarantine watch. If you can’t be stuck at home in a Nancy Meyers house, at least you can bring her picture-perfect homes into yours.
Next time: We kick off Pride Month with the cult classic, But I’m A Cheerleader.