Wednesday, December 16, 2009

(500) Days of Summer [2009, Webb]

Some Yiddish wordsmith should finally coin a neat single term for the self-obsessed, solipsistic-yet-lovable, quirk-infested American Male that is pestering the movies for quite a while now. As this passing year saw what may be the finest incarnation of this new species in the lean and slacker-slick figure of Jason Schwartzman's character in HBO’s Bored to Death, Marc Webb’s (500) Days of Summer is a send-off of sorts; both sympathetic and highly ironic towards the hip-nudnik phenomenon (how does “nudster” sound to you, by the way…?).

Not as high-concept as Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), Webb’s film is uncomfortable enough with the square RomCom mode to tamper compulsively with chronology and tone of the narrative. Jumping back and forth between specifically marked days that constitute the eponymous year-and-a-half period of uneasy courtship-cum-torment, the film is into making smug comparisons and ominous prognoses – not unlike some other conceptual comedies of desire gone stale: Two for the Road (1967) and 5x2 (2004), especially.

The story is Ninotchka (1939) for a post-sexual revolution world: Summer (Zooey Deschanel) is as immune to romance as Greta Garbo’s Soviet Commissar. Despite Tom’s (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) efforts, she wants to keep things “casual” and you sort of wait to hear her burst into Cole Porter’s “It's a Chemical Reaction” in every scene (too bad she doesn’t do it: there’s a karaoke scene here ready to be milked that way). As played by Deschanel, she’s either an epic tease or a sociopath, depending on how you look at her (which is mirrored in two ways Tom sees her shoulder birth-mark: once it’s a heart for him, at other times – a cockroach).

The sugar-coated catatonia Deschanel injects into her lines is in turns endearing and spooky – unlike Ninotchka, she doesn’t become a real character, though. Her aloofness – once the veil is gone – hides only more aloofness; there’s no anguish in her, nor there is doubt (even though she admits to the opposite in her last conversation with Tom).

The movie is shameless enough to employ such worn out devices as the Anxious-Pre-Coital-Mirror-Address and the World-Savvy-Younger-Sis, as well as a shallow and unfunny parody of an arthouse movie at one point. The Ikea charades played out by the protagonists are probably the most original and funny thing in the film – the only element that harkens back to the core of the great screwball tradition: a romantic pair poking fun at social conventions and yet living the most outrageous of them - that of “a couple” itself.

There are nods to Billy Wilder and (more explicitly) to Mike Nichols’ The Graduate (1967), and at least one unintentional invocation of yet another movie about the perils of narcissistic fantasies, namely Coraline (2009) – the “Other Mother Day” proposed at one point in a greeting-cards company loses its LGBT-friendly edge thanks to a strong imprint Henry Selick’s monstrous “Other Mother” made upon us all earlier this year. (At one point in (500) Days of Summer, Webb does Selick – not to mention Brian De Palma! – one better by splitting the screen into “Reality” and “Expectation” halves).

As ridiculously over-calculated as it’s symptomatic, (500) Days of Summer is kind of depressing, too – a sugar-overload sprinkled with sour derision to seem more hip than it dares to openly become.

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