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A NOVEMBER TO REMEMBER

"Sweet November" is playing it pretty coy about being a remake. But a remake it is.

The original "Sweet November" came out in 1968 and starred Anthony Newley as a kind of insecure geek and Sandy Dennis as a free spirit who adopts him for the month of November in order to solve his problems. Every month, she adopts a different guy. He moves into her apartment on the first of the month, and by the end, he must be gone.

Our new "Sweet November" stars Charlize Theron as Sarah, the Sandy Dennis role, and Keanu Reeves as Nelson, the guy she chooses to rehabilitate. It's probably the fault of our times that it's not nearly as touching as the first film.

That's because, in keeping with today's "me" mentality, Nelson is nowhere near the geek that Newley dared to be. His problem is - get this - that he's too successful, too confident, too driven. This isn't as much fun as in the original "Sweet November"; whatever neurosis Newley had, overconfidence sure wasn't it.

It's too bad that these days, no leading Hollywood actor can bear to play an awkward misfit. Oh, they'll jump at the chance to play a bad guy (in "The Gift," Reeves takes an unconvincing stab at playing an abusive husband) but a geek? Never! (Sandra Bullock should be commended for trying the hardest to be a geek in "Miss Congeniality.")

The people who made this new movie may have felt a little guilty, taking liberties, because the new "Sweet November" pays blatant tribute to the '60s. It takes place in heartbreaking, dreamy San Francisco. Theron knits, cooks a kind of slap-dash vegetarian cuisine and wears woven scarves, long skirts and macrame shawls. Even her makeup has a '60s cast to it.

But because we've abandoned the premise of the November man being a loser, the plot has a modern-day dopiness. Sarah's lesson to Nelson is simply: She's going to teach him - yawn - to relax.

Which means, after we get through the obligatory scenes of Old Nelson stressing out at his advertising agency, obsessing over new accounts and yapping into his cell phone, we're in for major music montages. Oodles of them, as New Nelson joins Sarah for walks on the beach with French poodles and picturesque tumbles in the surf.

Oh, and there's lots and lots of food, from sloppy eggs and home fries in those darling Haight diners to lingering candlelit dinners on Sarah's porch. Honest, there are more calories in this movie than in "Chocolat." One woman near me pointed at Theron and whispered to her friend, "She eats more than I do!"

I don't think it's giving too much away to reveal that the therapy climaxes with Nelson throwing his cell phone into a sink full of water. Or that he stops putting the time into his job and instead channels it into finding cutesy, thoughtful presents for Sarah, which he dispenses while wearing a Santa suit, even though it's not even Christmas. All of the presents have cutesy sentimental reasons attached to them. Some of them are even wrapped!

Woman's dream!

That's all this "Sweet November" is. Which is fine with me, really. I enjoyed the foray into La La Land, as anyone will who can't get her boyfriend to leave his computer long enough to cross the county line. Wouldn't we gals all love it if we could yank our guys away from their cell phones, hard drives and CNBC so all they focused on was us? Us, us, us!

And wouldn't we all love it if after we got them to junk their jobs, we found we didn't need money? In San Francisco, even the bohemian life is killingly expensive - but in this movie, people can turn down jobs and have not a worry in the world.

Nelson winds up saying something like, "I love my life now." Well, yeah, I'd love that life, too. I want to zap myself into this movie, the way Renee Zellweger enters the soap opera in "Nurse Betty."

Well, back down to earth. What I'm trying to say is that the new "Sweet November" is, for better or worse, unquestionably a chick flick.

The performances can't be faulted, really. Keanu Reeves isn't as bad as you might fear. He gets to walk around shirtless a lot, showing off those pecs (which are so impressive that they draw praise from Sarah's gay neighbors).

Charlize Theron obviously enjoys herself playing a bouncy bundle of looniness (especially in the initial scenes in which she harasses Keanu Reeves into following her lead). Fashion followers will note that with her performance, the tank top fad illustrated by Julia Roberts in "Erin Brockovich," Natalie Portman in "Where The Heart Is" and Helen Hunt in "Pay It Forward" moves into the year 2001.

Jason Isaacs, Mel Gibson's nemesis in "The Patriot," has a good turn as the drag queen who lives downstairs.

The movie's pace could have been better. (Some of this sluggishness might be explained by the fact that our director here is Pat O'Connor, who also gave us the meandering, contemplative - OK, soporific - "Dancing at Lughnasa.") Without giving away the ending of "Sweet November" - though I'm sure that thanks to television and whatnot, everyone knows Sarah's secret by now - everything drags near the end. There are a lot of foot chases down hills and over bridges, a lot of shouts of "Sarah, come back!" and a lot of maudlin tearfulness.

Couldn't we have called this movie "Sweet December"? A sequel to the old movie might not have been so bad. Why did they have to remake it completely?

Well, as Sarah tells us at one tearful moment, memories are what matters. If there's any lesson to be learned from "Sweet November" new or old, it's that all good things have to end.

MOVIE Review

Sweet November ** (out of four)

Rated: PG-13

Charlize Theron adopts Keanu Reeves for a month in order to "solve all his problems."

Opens Friday at area theaters

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