Never Say Die

'Autumn Spring' & 'Something's Gotta Give'

Some year’s end, with Hollywood serving up another round of high-gloss, $100-million epics, it’s nice to be able to turn to European movies. Not only for a change of scale, but also a different palate of emotions and ideas. Take the idea, for instance, that confronting old age-the waning of energies and options, the loss of a best friend-might form the basis of comedy, and that spry absurdity might be wrung from the themes of aging and grief. Welcome to the Central European sensibility and to Autumn Spring, Vladimir Michalek’s feisty and bittersweet comedy of life after seventy-five.

Autumn Spring, which opened in the United States a few months ago and is now available on DVD, begins with the visit of a wealthy retired conductor to the vast estate he’s viewing for prospective purchase in the Czech countryside. The maestro is distinctly unimpressed. “Very shabby,” he sniffs to his personal assistant, as the real estate agent frowns in dismay. Yet all is not exactly as it seems. For the maestro is an impostor. In truth, Fanda (Vlastimil Brodsky) is a retiree of modest means, and the would-be personal assistant is his best friend, Eda (Stanislav Zindulka). Touring mansions they can’t possibly afford to buy is a favorite con of theirs, one pulled just for kicks. A rascal, a scamp, Fanda lives by his devotion to the grand gesture. He’ll ride the train without a ticket, then, when caught, cordially pay the fine-and give the conductor a big tip. He “borrows” the paper early every morning from a neighbor’s mailbox, and returns it with the crossword puzzle filled in. His life is about getting away with things; his old age is a perpetual boyhood.

It drives his wife of forty-four years crazy. “Stop playing the fool and take life seriously!” Emilie (Stella Zazvorkova) commands her incorrigible husband. What Emilie takes most seriously is death. She lives in a bustle of preparation for her own-and Fanda’s-death, perpetually updating a file of materials that includes death notices and instructions for flowers, music, and casket; she has turned responsibility into a substitute for life itself. Fanda wants no part of it. He makes paper planes out of the death notices, and rolls his eyes in dismay during their walks to the cemetery where their son, Jara, has chosen a grave for them. Jara has his own agenda; he wants to move them into senior housing, so he can have their apartment for his ex-wife and kids.

It is a numbing crunch of late-life pressures, and Fanda responds with flights of grandiosity and guile. With Eda, he roams the city pulling whimsical pranks and telling whopper lies. Inevitably the tall tales land him in trouble. With an irate real estate agent chasing them for $400 spent wooing them for an afternoon, Fanda and Eda trundle around town, trying to hit up various friends for a loan. The outrageous stories they tell-in one, Eda has a prospective part in a major motion picture lined up, but needs $400 of tap dancing lessons to get it-inevitably backfire, and the two end up helping out friends even shorter of cash than they are. Yet the lies, we understand, have a purpose all their own. They make life grand, and that makes it worth living.

Simply conceived and executed, Autumn Spring dishes out scenes that touch the heart with a surprising deftness. When Fanda chivalrously helps a much younger woman with packages in the hallway of the apartment building, the two exchange a look of warmth, and a sweetly haunted sympathy extends across the gulf of age. Time’s passage looms. Later on, Fanda wheels Eda, stricken by a stroke, around a hospital garden. “It’s gone too fast,” Eda says, simply.

As Eda’s health declines, the movie turns increasingly poignant. Still, director Michalek and his screenwriter, Jiri Hubac, keep upping the comic ante. Eventually Emilie’s frustrations lead the couple to divorce court and a hearing before a skeptical judge. “He wants to fly around the world in a balloon, and he refuses to admit that our paths don’t lead anywhere anymore,” Emilie complains. “It’s intolerable!” Her complaint, she herself half-realizes, is an inadvertent profession of love, and bit by bit the film moves toward a spouse’s recognition that her husband’s will to live is itself incorrigible; that what inspires cannot be extricated from what exasperates. Autumn Spring perches its tender comedy on a choice between the maturity that masks a meek acceptance of death, and a spirit that refuses to yield.

By comparison, Something’s Gotta Give illuminates the American paradigm of old age. Central to it is the banishment of sorrow, and the defiance of death not in Fanda’s brand of heroic playfulness, but through a fantasy of undying eros. Something’s Gotta Give takes as its starting point the American horror of decrepitude. Whatever you do, don’t grow old!

Jack Nicholson plays Harry Sanborn, a sixty-three-year-old record mogul and notorious bachelor proud to have been profiled in a magazine article titled “The Escape Artist.” Seen through Harry’s eyes, the world is a garden, crowded with ripe young women free for the plucking. “Ahhh,” he muses in a lusty voice-over, as we watch glam girls sashay sexily toward a Manhattan club, “the sweet uncomplicated satisfaction of the younger woman!” In a gourmet food store he greedily scrutinizes his twenty-something girlfriend, Marin (Amanda Peet), and in his lasciviousness he all but makes love to his ice cream cone. No one does this kind of thing better than Nicholson.

Like the Hugh Hefner lifestyle he emulates, however, Harry is a little outdated. The spirit is willing, but the flesh? At the film’s outset he suffers a mild heart attack, requiring a recuperative stay at his girlfriend’s family’s house in the Hamptons, where the two have been cavorting-and where Marin’s divorced mother, Erica (Diane Keaton), a renowned playwright, is trying to work on her new script. “I really don’t want to play uptight nurse to your bad-boy patient,” Erica informs Harry, appalled at his entire act. It’s fun to watch writer/director Nancy Meyers turn the tables on the hapless playboy, confounding him with intimations of mortality. Nicholson has a gift for physical comedy, swaying dizzily in a hospital johnny that unflatteringly reveals his derriere. Erica, meanwhile, becomes the object of surprise attentions from Harry’s handsome, if boring, young physician (Keanu Reeves).

There’s little doubt where all this is headed: toward a rearrangement that gently chides-and corrects-America’s youth obsession; but there are plenty of surprises along the way. The scenes of Nicholson and Keaton walking on the beach glow with warmth, as Nicholson’s grizzled sensualist confronts the dawning of an intimacy founded in the shared predicament of age. “The truth is, it goes by fast, doesn’t it?” Erica muses. “Like the blink of an eye,” says Harry.

Nicholson exerts a lighter touch than usual, and for Keaton the role of Erica is a tour de force-her trademark ditziness joined to a focused intelligence and a mania for control that gradually, if reluctantly, yields to the imperatives of passion. In the later parts of the film, after she has given herself over to love, she shouts, wails, weeps, exults, and wails again. It is a hilariously winning depiction of love’s insane vitality. Meyers keeps things peppy with strategic uses of bossa nova, Eartha Kitt chansons, and images of Paris on a snowy night. With Viagra hijinks, amorous scenes involving blood-pressure cuffs, and a romantic mix-up that centers on misplaced reading glasses, Something’s Gotta Give provides an invigorating dose of American comic optimism. The film converts a heart attack into a change of heart, countering the ravages of age with a playful hope for romance

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