Valentine's Day, 1968. For those who couldn't make it to the Revolution--the Dead show, the Panther party, the gay ball, the NOW meeting--there was Sweet November. This Sixties mash note delivered a weak dose of psychedelics and women's lib to middle America by way of Sara Deever (Sandy Dennis), a go-go-booted sex waif who emancipates a new man each and every month. Thanks to this movie, proto-politicos didn't have to attend one of those discomfiting lefty lectures themselves, but could witness the cultural coup by proxy, as when Deever and her November recruit (Anthony Newley) attend a "Signposts of the Seventies" exhibit showcasing "revolutionary ideas and developments that will be commonplace on the earth, the moon, and other planets within our lifetimes." Now, three decades, one backlash, and a dot-com revolution later, Sweet November uses the February occasion to assuage recession-era layoff anxiety with a liberatory roll in the hay, showcasing the cosmetic--rather than cosmic--changes that lie in between.
In 1968 Dennis played an innocent eccentric partial to chocolate milk, polymorphous painting and plumbing, and political pronouncements to the effect that "pigeons prefer rye crisps five to one." So sensitive is this woman that she prefers to call rotten fruit "bruised." Under her sexual tutelage, box manufacturer Charlie Blake (Newley) learns to, ahem, think outside the box. In the process, he discovers his predilection for poetry, sandals, and leather pants. In her latest incarnation, Sara (Charlize Theron) has exchanged her go-go boots for the combat variety; she also practices kickboxing, favors tofu over Jell-O, and speaks the language of "win-win" in place of Sixties-era "fulfillment." In effect, she has moved from gypsy gamine to guerrilla grrrl.
Corporate Charlie, on the other hand, hasn't changed much over the years, except that he's now Nelson Moss (Keanu Reeves), a top-dog ad exec with a cell phone and a laptop, along with his watch, to keep him "connected." Make that disconnected. One shot of Nelson sexing up his girlfriend like he's on a Stairmaster and we know that he's a candidate for Sara's particular brand of therapy. Maybe he's not a poet, but there's at least a karaoke singer beneath the blue suit.
If critics noticed the 1968 film at all, it was in scorn. Scoffing at the movie's countercultural camouflage, the New Yorker's Pauline Kael found the premise--frail flower-child unpacks tightwad--to be an insufferable variation on the Thirties trope of the tragic nymphet. Indeed, Kael's scathing review of Sweet November suggested that the counterculture itself was incorrigibly infantile and impossibly male, positing regression as the antidote to repression and preferring girls to women. Sixties sexperimentation, she implied, permitted male escapism; and in turn, by presenting unfettered sex as an exclusively male therapy, Sweet November passed misogyny off as liberation.
So take away my feminist card: I love Sweet November--in its pre-Annie Hall Sixties guise, that is. I love its quirky optimism, its metaphors for sex, its trippy intimations, its flirtation with adolescent narcissism, its ending. In 1968, Sandy Dennis captured a fragile, experimental feminist moment in which heroines picked up men without a hint of fear. In the blink of an eye, that moment was over. This latest Sweet November flirts with feminism, but it can't quite overcome its hang-ups: Sara may flip Nelson by mid-month, but by the end, guess who's back on top?
Ultimately, Sweet November 2001 proves Kael's point beyond a doubt. In a brilliant scene, Nelson takes "sex sells" ad strategies to bulging extremes, ridiculing the commodity fetishism, sexual objectification, and inflated male egos that propel modern advertising. ("I make a wholesome hot dog, you prick!" screams an angry client.) And yet the film pushes its own toxic product. As they may have put it in the Seventies: Man, in order to deal with his own aging and eventual death, demands the terminal youthfulness of woman. Misogyny mistakes itself for love. Unfortunately, that doesn't quite fit on a candy heart.