Oren Little (Michael Douglas) is a successful realtor of high-end homes in Connecticut's posh Fairfield County, but he's not exactly a people person. Gardeners who tend rose bushes might call him a prick. To get a dog off the lawn of one of his properties, he fires a paint-ball gun at its butt. In the modest four-unit building he owns and shares with three renters, Oren sits on his front porch and, while getting sloshed on cocktails, makes a point of complaining about lively kids, parking his car to block a pregnant woman's access and insulting Leah (Diane Keaton), the widow in the adjoining apartment. When Leah starts to challenge him, he throws up a preventive defense, asking, "Is what you're gonna say really worth what I'm about to say back?"
In a rare summer-movie weekend that offers two new comedies about grumpy old men, Oren, in Rob Reiner's And So It Goes, goes up against Colin Firth's misanthropic Stanley, in Woody Allen's Magic in the Moonlight, and easily wins the sour-persimmons prize. Oren's explanation for his perpetual grouchiness: for two years he nursed his wife through a siege of cancer, while their no-good son went AWOL into drug addiction. Shouldn't everyone he meets have to pay for that outrage? Leah's husband also recently passed, from "an undetected aneurism." She, 65, and Oren, 67, are at that stage of life where a loved one's death is a shock. (In another decade, as more and more friends succumb, such news will become shop talk.) Of course the two adversaries will warm into one, for a rejuvenating sexagenarian tryst.
(READ: Corliss on Woody Allen's Magic in the Moonlight)
In his prime, Reiner was a canny director who could coax the right blend of comedy and drama from many different projects, among them This Is Spinal Tap, Stand By Me, The Princess Bride and Misery. Twenty-five years ago this summer, he brought Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan together for When Harry Met Sally..., the '80s apex of rom-com. Reiner's new film is that one plus his last hit, the 2007 The Bucket List: in a phrase, the attraction of late-in-life opposites.
The movie's author is Mark Andrus, who earned an Oscar nomination for his script for James L. Brooks's As Good As It Gets, another tale of a crabby oldster (Jack Nicholson) who eventually comes to his sensitivities. The new Reiner-Andrus film is unworthy of them or of their earlier movies. And So It Goes may touch the frayed heartstrings of some older viewers, but it's pretty bad — the failed attempt to Heimlich a venerable movie genre.
The first hint something's gone wrong is the bland title: which summons recollections either of Kurt Vonnegut's war novel Slaughterhouse-Five (whose narrator says "So it goes" whenever someone dies) or of long-ago singles by Roberta Flack, Billy Joel and The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. (A more appropriate title might be It Could Happen to You, a chestnut that Keaton sings in the film.) Another hint: In a movie packed with oldies — songs and actors — the tune over the opening credits is Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides, Now" as covered by Judy Collins. But it's not the famous, pitch-perfect performance from Collins' 1967 Wildflowers album. Instead, Reiner chose a later interpretation: less assured, more quavery. Like the movie.
(READ: The 1974 Joni Mitchell cover story by subscribing to TIME)
Oren's son Luke (Scott Shepherd, who looks like a younger, ginger Woody Harrelson) tells him that he's off to jail again, and leaves Oren with a little going-away albatross: his 10-year-old child Sara (Sterling Jerins, who played the daughter of Brad Pitt in World War Z and of Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson in The Conjuring). Oren spumes at the proposition, but Leah takes quickly to surrogate grandmothering, winning Sara's affection through caresses, kind words and feeding the girl ice cream and popsicles.
Say this for Sara: she knows her place in an alterkocker rom-com — off to the side, so the starring actors have the chance to warm to each other. Oren's insults mellow into semi-compliments ("I've sold houses in worse condition than you") and he agrees to manage Leah's late career as a local chanteuse. The movie wanders predictably to Oren's redemption, not with the comic rapture Reiner invested in The Princess Bride but at about the irritation level of a mild toothache.
On the plus side, Douglas looks great at 69, and Keaton retains her stammering good nature at an unretouched 67. Oren and Leah's first sexual encounter has some amusing moments, as she announces, "I'm leaving my bra on," and he scoots off about six seconds after orgasm. Annie Parisse is excellent in a brief scene as Sara's loving, drug-addled mother. And Frances Sternhagen imparts a knowing tartness to her role as Oren's real-estate partner, asking him, "You think you invented men being assholes?"
For New York baseball fans, the biggest laugh comes when Oren finally finds a buyer for his overpriced home: a Latino guy who can afford the $8.5-million asking price, and will pay in cash, because he's a major league pitcher who's just been signed to a seven-year, $175-million contract by the Mets. The thought that that notorious chintzy organization would spring for such a lavish deal will send some viewers out of the theater laughing and crying — though not for the reasons Rob Reiner might have wanted.