Rob Reiner, a.k.a. “Meathead” and creative force behind such quirky classics, This is Spinal Tap, When Harry Met Sally and The Princess Bride, gets back to his roots with this bag of mixed nuts about an embittered widower hit with some life-altering events that threaten to melt his icy heart and make him feel again. It’s a clichéd premise no doubt, but thankfully Reiner and cast play up the comedic angle and make what could have been a flat, Lifetime weepy something springy and possessed of an intermittent joy.
Set in the coddled community of Fairfield Connecticut, realtor Oren Little (Michael Douglas) is trying to get over the loss of his wife and sell his palatial estate (for a cool 8 mill), but because of a professional slump and the personal setbacks, he slums it in a four-unit rooming house on the Long Island Sound and grouses about his neighbors with three-olive rancor. The script written by Mark Andrus who penned As Good as it Gets (you’ve gotta love these inspired titles) employs some pretty frilly shenanigans—and not all of them stick. Take the fact Oren’s son (Scott Shepherd) is a recovering addict and heading to jail for insider trading. It’s never explained how he got from shooting up to shorting shares, but so it goes. He’s also got a ten-year-old daughter, Sarah (Sterling Jerins), who needs a custodian as mom’s whereabouts are unknown. When asked to take on Sarah, Oren pushes back, declaring he was a lousy dad. That’s the kind of prick we’re dealing with, at least initially.
Thankfully for Sarah and the movie’s sake, Diane Keaton is in the mix as Leah, one of Little Shangri-La’s other residents who’s also recently lost her spouse, and occupies her lonely golden years by trying to live out her dream of becoming a lounge singer—though her success is hobbled by her proclivity to break down and cry in the middle of a song. Without much prompting, Leah jumps in and takes Sarah under her wing while leaning on Oren to open up and fulfill his responsibility—and slowly, too, romance blossoms into the picture as well.
In watching And So It Goes, I had to wonder if Keaton is as wonderful of a human in person as she’s been on screen all these years. Her self-deprecating sprightliness and inherent warm-heartedness has long beguiled (from back in her Annie Hall and Sleeper days), and I have yet to find a movie with her in it where she has not elevated the film. That said, the rest of the cast is quite superb as well. Jerins’ Sarah, is mostly plot fodder, but the single mom upstairs (Annie Parisse) who teaches her boys to mimic “Oren the meanie,” the African-American police detective (Maurice Jones) who Oren won’t share a parking space with to ease his very pregnant wife’s physical challenges and Oren’s foul-mouthed, elderly co-worker down at the reality firm (Frances Sternhagen), all add necessary and sassy nuance. Sternhagen pretty much walks away with each of her scenes while Rob Reiner takes on the unenviable role of the egregiously toupeed leader of Leah’s ensemble who has feelings for her as well. He and Sarah are the most vulnerable characters in the film, and yet they’re held mostly at the corners.
The one aspect of And So It Goes that kept pulling at the corner of my eye was the picture-perfect, one-percenter depiction of Connecticut. Even Little Shangri-La, in need of some repairs, appears idyllic and Eden-esque, which is how most people imagine Connecticut. As a person who grew up there in less desirable hamlets (Oxford and Newtown before it became fanciful) and knowing that this is not a universal truism, I was uncomfortably on edge for a while, but ultimately relieved when the search for Sarah’s mom leads Oren and crew into the mean projects of Bridgeport, which is how the real Connecticut goes—extreme wealth mixed with extreme poverty, and all in such close geographic quarters that a spare mile or two can be the difference between tony affluence and hell.
The hell in And So It Goes lies in its limited and rigged trappings. Keaton is its savior. Her charm and the pleasure of seeing her do her emotionally mercurial stage acts buoy the film, as does Douglas’s cantankerous misanthrope, even though he’s about as 2D as 2D can get.
The screening I attended was sponsored by the AARP, and was, without doubt, the most respectful crowd I’ve ever sat among since plopping down with a posse of Civil War reenactors during a screening of Gods and Generals. Perhaps there’s a new target market out there beyond teenage boys and romance-minded girls? The pre-film promo blitz that showed seniors getting their groove on, updating their Facebook status on the fly and Skyping with their grandkids seemed like a pretty tranquil and appealing existence. Douglas and Keaton make it more so, as does the closing flourish nostalgically staged to Judy Collins’s mellifluous “Both Sides Now.” Getting old might be cool after all.
Director: Rob Reiner
Writer: Mark Andrus
Starring: Michael Douglas, Diane Keaton, Annie Parisse, Frances Sternhagen, Sterling Jerins
Release Date: July 25, 2014
Tom Meek is a writer living in Cambridge, MA. His reviews, essays, short stories and articles have appeared in The Boston Phoenix, Paste Magazine, The Rumpus, Thieves Jargon, Charleston City Paper and SLAB literary journal. Tom is also a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics and rides his bike everywhere. You can follow him on Twitter.