Though we’re still in the midst of the year-end movie crunch, I can’t believe the season will produce a bigger or happier surprise than Nancy Meyers’ Something’s Gotta Give. I read the film’s premise–Jack Nicholson as a babe-obsessed Lothario who falls for his current babe’s mom, Diane Keaton, who in turn is romanced by dashing Keanu Reeves–and thought it sounded like the most transparent and inane of wish-fulfillment fantasies. But coming out of the screening I found myself between one friend who called the movie “an instant classic” and another who dubbed it “the best romantic comedy since Broadcast News,” and I was hard-pressed to disagree.

Well, one minor disagreement. I wasn’t a fan of Broadcast News. But when I tried to think of the last superlative Hollywood movie of this type, I had to reach back pretty far … all the way, perhaps, to When Harry Met Sally … , in 1989.

My friends and I were generally on the same page, because we were both speaking of what might be called the Nora Ephron/James L. Brooks school of romantic comedy. Both writer-directors make glossy mainstream movies that, at their best, offer smart, idiomatic dialogue and stories that probe not only contemporary mores but also the emotional wellsprings of perennial male-female difficulties. Yet neither filmmaker has maintained the standards they set early on, Brooks having declined from Broadcast News to the dreadful sitcom As Good As It Gets while Ephron moved from the tartness of When Harry Met Sally … (which she wrote, and Rob Reiner directed) to the sappy formulas of Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail.

Having defined their genre, Ephron and Brooks can now either rest on their laurels or go into hiding, because Hollywood has a new master of the romantic comedy in Nancy Meyers. However, Meyers is not a newcomer. She got her start as co-writer and producer on Private Benjamin (1980) and was a successful producer-writer for years before turning director with the remake of Disney’s Parent Trap and the Mel Gibson vehicle What Women Want, the latter a surprisingly imaginative and accomplished comedy given its cartoonish high-concept premise (an inveterate skirt-chaser is suddenly able to read women’s minds).

With Something’s Gotta Give, though, Meyers suddenly leaps to a new elevation, and in doing so, she reminds us why the romantic comedy, though one of Hollywood’s most broadly appealing forms, is also one of the very toughest to pull off. Beyond such crucial ineffables as actor chemistry, comic timing and narrative surprise, it demands genuine emotional trenchancy–the ability to plunge into areas of feeling that evoke as much anxiety and angst as amusement.

The tricky topic here is aging, and it must be said that Meyers engages the zeitgeist in a timely fashion. Not only are most baby boomers now past the half-century mark, but so are the cinematic heroes of their youth, ’70s “film generation” icons like Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton. Three decades on, can the stars of Chinatown and Annie Hall still cut it as romantic leads? And can their teaming tell us anything new about the ways of love, both in real life and in the movies?

You might expect, in such a case, that we would be asked to suspend or at least stretch disbelief to a certain degree. But I must admit I found not the slightest challenge to credulity in Jack Nicholson being cast as Harry Sanborn, a 63-year-old satyr who for decades hasn’t dated a woman over 30. A hip-hop record mogul, Harry is dedicated to an admittedly hedonistic but not implausible definition of the good life, and Nicholson’s wolfish grin is the perfect, flashing emblem of that voracious worldview.

When we first glimpse Harry he’s in a snazzy convertible speeding eastward on Long Island for a weekend tryst with his latest honey. Marin (Amanda Peet) is gorgeous, and she promptly offers Harry a combined striptease and tour of the impeccable Hamptons beach house that belongs to her mother, Erica, a successful, divorced Broadway playwright. There’s only one problem with the romantic rendezvous: Mom (Diane Keaton), it turns out, is home. And naturally, she dislikes Harry from the instant she finds him raiding her fridge in his skivvies.

Meyers’ set-up here is deftly clever in a couple of ways. She starts out by fixing our attention on Nicholson and thus slyly disguises the fact that it is Keaton–as the divorced comedy writer–who is her own stand-in. Then, once the characters are introduced, rather than slowly teasing us toward the issue of age, Meyers throws it right on the table.

This happens at dinner the first night, when Erica’s sister Zoe (Frances McDormand) offers the kind of acerbic analysis of the differences between the sexes on the subject of age that you’d expect to hear from a Columbia University professor. And yes, the prof makes some good points. But so what? The film knows that such by-now kneejerk intellectual formulations must be acknowledged and then set aside, so that the grand vagaries of real interaction can begin.

But this beginning is comically calamitous. In the midst of love-making, Harry has a coronary, and ends up hospitalized under the care of Julian (Keanu Reeves), a handsome young doctor who’s a huge fan of Erica’s, um, body of work. Though Erica’s suitably incredulous that the medical hunk is paying attention to her rather than her gorgeous daughter, she barely has time to enjoy the situation before it morphs into one far more onerous: She’s asked to care for the recuperating Harry in her beach house while everyone else goes their separate ways.

One of the most striking things about Meyers’ work–evident in What Women Want as well–is its physicality. And I don’t mean just physical comedy. Here, she makes adroit use of unavoidable ways film makes us confront the aging beings of both the stars and the people they play. Yes, unfairly, women are generally held to a stricter standard. Erica/Keaton’s face has noticeable wrinkles and she wears heavy eye makeup and turtlenecks (in summer). Nicholson is less obviously weathered and self-conscious, yet Harry’s heart attack reminds us that physical decay isn’t all external.

By not avoiding but rather stressing the human falling away from cosmetic and youthful ideals of beauty, Meyers is able to brilliantly deploy the other side of the cinematic coin: movies’ ability to trump appearances with the forces of personality and spirit. Naturally, what happens at Erica’s beach house at first seems risibly improbable: She and Harry begin to fall for each other.

Is he changed because of his sudden encounter with mortality? That would be the cliche, of course, and Meyers wisely ignores it. Instead, their confined circumstances give Erica and Harry the time to begin noticing the things they have in common, including a sense of humor.

In the rare movie like this that succeeds, much rides on the writing, and Meyers’ dialogue throughout is wonderfully intelligent and apt. But the final miracle of our believing that Harry and Erica truly intersect romantically depends on other factors as well, and you can’t help but ponder that in a crucial scene where the two take a long walk on the beach. The writing here is fine, sure, but it’s really just small talk. The magic happens between the actors, in looks and smiles and conversation they seem to have made up on the spot. Suddenly, “attraction” has less to do with bodies than with people.

Let it be said that these performances are individually as fine as anything that Keaton and Nicholson have ever done, and together they radiate a chemistry as memorable as that of Hepburn and Tracy. That is no small praise, but here we leave behind great acting and encounter what might almost be a mathematical proof of the eternal value of movie stars. (I shouldn’t fail to add that Meyers also gets excellent supporting performances from Peet and Reeves.)

Has any Hollywood movie ever engaged the subjects of love, physical attraction and age as meaningfully and as entertainingly as this film does? If so, I can’t think of it. I’ve described barely a third of the story. You won’t be surprised to learn that as satisfying as the rest is, it’s not wholly without flaws. The third act’s a mite long and erratic. Yet the final measure of the film’s success is that in the lovers’ ultimate encounter–in Paris, no less–you really don’t know what’s going to happen until the last second. It all has the breathtaking mystery of an actual change of heart. EndBlock