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Thursday, December 31, 2009

(500) Days of Summer

Hello and welcome back to the blog! (Said mostly for myself) It's been a long three months since I posted something on this site, and what a coincidence, it's been three months since I started my job. It's amazing what a job and a commute to go with it will do to your free-time and your eagerness to share opinions with strangers.

But, despite a currently, and hopefully continually, out of date title, the blog might as well go on. I've recently started up a Netflix account again and try to read on the bus, so it's just a matter of finding the requisite time and energy to put my thoughts down in this space.

It's been too long a break to go back and let you know what I've been reading/watching, but quickly: Mad Men is pretty much what it's cracked up to be. Lolita was great but would've been even better if the stupid annotations (not Nabokov's) hadn't ruined the suspense. John Irving's latest novel Last Night in Twisted River was an appealing look at how fiction writers blend autobiography and creativity. Wes Anderson is a pretty damn good director, and Royal Tenenbaums might be the best Gene Hackman performance I've ever seen. Children of Men the book took a great idea and ran it right into the ground, where Alfonso Cuaron picked it up and turned it into one of the best movies of the decade.

There's more, but let's get on to the principal review:

(500) Days of Summer is not a movie driven by plot. The story is really your standard developing relationship story propped by a number of amusing gimmicks such as playing with the timeline and self-conciously shattering the illusion that what you're seeing on screen is something that is really happening. Rather, the movie is sustained by its knowledge of human emotions and vulnerabilities. Joseph Gordon-Levitt's Tom is an Everyman, who finds what he believes is a singular woman, Zooey Deschanel's Summer Finn, and is alternately driven to ecstasy and despair by her seemingly inconsistent position on their relationship and love in general.

The movie gets so many things right about the inherent awkwardness of any relationship between two people, each of whom have their own goals, motivations, and ideas of what their relationship should be. Summer wants to keep their relationship fun and avoid any semblance of a serious relationship, while Tom is so entranced by this girl that he figures it must be heading that way no matter what she has to say about it.

There's a scene in a bar, when Tom and Summer's relationship is already deteriorating, when a creep starts hitting on Summer and, once rejected, begins mocking Tom along the lines of "this guy's your boyfriend?" After Tom punches the guy (and gets knocked out in return) he tries to tell Summer that he did it for her, but the truth is obvious: he was upset that Summer wouldn't use the word "boyfriend" to describe him.

The supporting cast is truly secondary in this two-person show, but Tom's two best friends are there for some comic relief, as is his spunky, romance-wise tween sister, an allowable cliche who provides Tom with maybe the best advice any liberal arts grad could ever be given. When Tom tells his sister how he and Summer both love The Smiths and J.D. Salinger's story "A Perfect Day for Bananafish", she says, "Just because a girl loves the same bizarro crap that you do doesn't mean she's the one." Really, I think that should be the tagline for the movie, and maybe engraved on marble somewhere for large numbers of people to see.

Some critics complained about Summer's "underdeveloped" personality, but I think that misses the point. By the end of the movie it's clear that Tom never really had any idea who Summer was or what she was thinking or feeling. He took one look at her and said "dreamgirl" and never went deeper than that. This is something the movie claims is universal: a very funny bit shows Summer improving record sales by quoting a song in her yearbook and causing immense profits at the ice cream parlor where she worked. Deschanel is thus perfectly cast, she is either extremely adept at playing, to quote The Sound of Music, "an empty page, which men will want to write on" or she has no personality whatsoever, and was genetically designed to give hipster doofuses and English majors heart palpitations.

I've read many complaints about the ending of the movie, but as I was watching it the ending that occurs seemed like the only possible way to end the movie. I won't spoil it here, but suffice it to say that the ending is neither as saccharine sweet nor as much of a cop-out as its detractors seem to think. It seems to this observer that the film ends by stating the relatively simple premise that relationships begin and end, begin and end many times, and some times they suck and sometimes only one person thinks they suck and that, well, sucks for the other person, but there's really only one thing you can do, isn't there? (Short of the movie turning much darker than it was intended to be, of course.)

(500) Days of Summer is something that you don't seem to find much these days, a romantic comedy that attempts to appeal to both men and women and that deals with relationships in a way that normal human beings might actually recognize from their daily lives. That alone makes it a refreshing departure from a tired genre. On top of that it includes two fine performances at its center, some witty gadgets and gimmicks (my favorite being a split-screen between Tom's expectations of what will happen at a party and what really happens), a few musical numbers, and the chance to look at Zooey Deschanel for 90 minutes. For all that it gets 8.8 out of 10.

Next? Well, I've got Inglourious Basterds at home, and I'm reading another Michael Chabon book, Gentlemen of the Road.

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