Though none of the characters in “And So It Goes” wear fabulous clothes, vacation in scenic locales, or live in perfectly kept mansions with kitchens so catalog-ready they’d make Martha Stewart weep in envy, Rob Reiner‘s Nancy Meyers knock-off does peddle one irresistible fantasy: the idea that the right person could come along and magically rid you of all your faults, resentments, and unhappiness, painlessly transplanting another personality where yours used to be.
Michael Douglas thus takes a page out of Jack Nicholson‘s “As Good As It Gets” playbook and gives us a few guilty chuckles as he plays the mean old coot, then reassures us that we’re not jerks for laughing with him after all because he’s as soft as sponge cake on the inside. Fortunately, Reiner knows that Douglas is at his most charismatic as a cavalierly assaultive misanthrope, and the director allows him to peacock around for a pleasingly long while before inevitably restraining him in the cage of the redemption arc.
Douglas plays Oren Little, a preppy but boorish real-estate agent struggling to sell the Connecticut estate where he raised his drug-addict son Luke (Scott Shepherd) with his now-deceased wife. He himself resides in a cramped apartment with a motley collection of neighbors he likes to antagonize for fun, including his next-door neighbor, frumpy lounge singer Leah (Diane Keaton, who contributes a couple of beautifully fragile renditions of jazz standards).
The thread of chintz used to rope Oren and Leah together is his granddaughter Sarah (Sterling Jerins), dropped off by Luke on his way to the clink. When it becomes clear that Oren would prefer the little girl enter the foster-care system than become his ward (“she’s probably Guatemalan,” he remarks with matter-of-fact disgust, because he really is that older relative you try to avoid talking to at Thanksgiving dinner), Leah takes Sarah in until Oren is ready to accept his familial responsibility.
If Sarah is a melodramatic contrivance, though, the romance between the two near-retirees, both widowed and emotionally pinned to the past, gains a sense of lived-in realism and exhausted hopefulness from the characters’ layered histories. Thanks to Douglas and Keaton’s self-assured performances, their characters feel like real people scarred by regret and, particularly in Oren’s case, bitterness that life hasn’t delivered on its promises.
The two don’t dwell for too long on their grief, but there’s just enough melancholy to make the sugar go down easier. A short exchange in which they discover that neither has enjoyed any physical intimacy in years manages to be funny, moving, and strangely alluring all at once.
Keaton, too, is mercifully tamped down from her usual squawking-ostrich shtick, though she offers a familiar variation on her usual on-screen persona of a woman whose lack of self-esteem somehow makes her more appealing. (Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” provides a lovely and boomer-rific musical introduction to the film, but One Direction’s “You Don’t Know You’re Beautiful” might have been even more appropriate.)
Leah’s teetering self-image acquires an unexpected poignancy from its connection to her status as an aging female performer, and the subplot in which Oren manages to convince her that her voice is worth much more than she thinks proves quietly satisfying.
To be clear, “And So It Goes” doesn’t aim to be anything more than a gray-haired crowd-pleaser as generic as its title. It’s a broad and sentimental comedy with dick jokes that manage to be funny without ever feeling like they belong to this particular movie. And yet Douglas and Keaton conjure just enough empathy and optimism and cozy charm between them to make us believe that anything can happen at twilight.