December 04, 2003 at 05:00 AM EST

Finally, a fresh answer for the next time some fusty Freudian coughs up the old challenge, What do women want? After basking in the skin-tone-flattering candlelight of the wish-fulfilling romantic comedy Something’s Gotta Give, my indisputable response is we want what Diane Keaton is having.

In the gift-wrapped role of divorced, middle-aged famous playwright Erica Barry, Keaton glows with the beauty of a mature, self-aware woman who, much to her own surprise, finds herself coping with unsettling emotional upheaval at a time in her life when she has become used to self-sufficiency. Blessed with creativity, wealth, good health, and a caring adult daughter, Marin (Amanda Peet), Erica also finds herself responding to the unexpected attentions of Jack Nicholson as Harry Sanborn, a playboy in his 60s, and Keanu Reeves as Julian Mercer, a doctor in his 30s. What a sly self-referential joke, having Nicholson play off his own image as an untamable fox who digs younger chicks! In fact, the bachelor is dating Marin when he suffers a mild heart attack in her mother’s beach house. And what a kicky use of Reeves’ smooth cheeks as the other man! (Indeed, the doctor becomes smitten with Erica while treating Harry. His first words to Marin are ”Your dad’s gonna be okay.”)

But really, seriously, what woman wouldn’t want to be Keaton, all sexy, funny, tender, quick, and never more charismatic in her animated access to her own feelings? And what man, of any age, wouldn’t want to be with her? As she did in her previous target-audience panderer ”What Women Want,” writer-director Nancy Meyers takes a snappy battle-of-the-sexes issue — in this case, the mystery of middle-aged men who are attracted only to younger women — and exhorts the already converted with needling jokes and psych-lite speeches. Meyers isn’t immune to tee-heeing gags, either: Hilarity is encouraged at the sight of Nicholson’s bare butt mooning through the gaps in a hospital gown (a tushy shot that was demeaning for the old astronauts in ”Space Cowboys,” too).

Except when the splendiferous Frances McDormand is sparkling as Erica’s effortlessly sexy, blunt-talking sister (a professor of women’s studies, for emphasis), ”Something” says nothing particularly pithy about the vulnerability of aging eyes dependent on reading glasses or about aging libidos grateful for Viagra. But every moment spent in the company of Keaton (lovingly photographed by the great cinematographer of ”Gangs of New York,” Michael Ballhaus) is such a joy that the whole is more delightful than the sum of the formulaic ingredients. Keaton makes Nicholson bounce the way Shirley MacLaine once did in ”Terms of Endearment.” She enhances the innate loveliness of Peet. And I swear she arouses cool Reeves. Who knew that romancing an older woman would turn out to be his hot career move?

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