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Love is not the thing: (l-r) Deschanel and Gordon-Levitt in (500) Days of Summer.

A Perfect Couple

By Shawn Stone

(500) Days of Summer

Directed by Marc Webb

It’s surprising to report that (500) Days of Summer, a zippy little hipster romantic comedy (with a zippy hipster soudtrack), earns those pretentious parentheses in the title. The film is clever, but not so clever that it smirks at the characters or audience. The occasional narrator may say at the beginning, in stentorian movie-trailer-voice tones, that “this is not a love story,” but he’s lying. It’s a love story.

Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a onetime aspiring young architect who has settled for a job writing greeting cards. It suits him, because he deeply believes that love, and finding “the one,” will solve all his problems. Summer (Zooey Deschanel), the boss’ new assistant at the greeting-card company, does not believe in love, or finding “the one.” Because this is a movie, and Deschanel and Gordon-Levitt are the prettiest people in said movie, they drift into a relationship. He says it’s love. She won’t call it anything.

Tom is the more obviously deluded, but Summer has a streak of destructive aimlessness that slowly emerges as we piece together the out-of sequence cinematic shards the filmmakers present us.

The latter is not a complaint. (500) Days of Summer succeeds to a great extent because it’s relentlessly nonlinear, and the time-jumps—even with the gimmick of framing every sequence, minutes long or seconds short, with a graphic counter so you know which of the 500 days is about to be shown—are more artful than obvious. The blackout-length scenes allow for plenty of comedy, too; the only other summer movie that earned this many audience laughs was The Hangover. (A very different kind of comedy, but equally succinct in presentation.)

One of the pleasing things about (500) Days of Summer is that the lead characters aren’t especially better or more emotionally maladjusted than the people around them. Tom’s pal McKenzie (Geoffrey Arend) hasn’t had a relationship in years, while Paul (Matthew Gray Gubler) has had the same girlfriend since elementary school. (In other words, they’re both fucked.) The only tinny note is sounded by Tom’s smartass, advice dispensing younger sister Rachel, and actress Chloe Moretz is so solid in the part, you like her anyway, even if you don’t quite forgive the writers.

Just like the average action film or the last Lord of the Rings movie, (500) Days of Summer has multiple endings. There’s the falling out of love ending; the sad realizations ending; the final goodbye ending; and the did-they-or-didn’t-they-learn-a-goddamned-thing ending. Since these provide useful insights—and are short scenes—this isn’t annoying, as in, say, an actioner or that last Lord of the Rings movie.

(500) Days of Summer is ultimately ambiguous enough to please both the sentimental and unsentimental, which is both necessary (commercially) and problematic (dramatically). But it’s not as disingenuous as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, with that film’s hope-against-no-hope finale. You walk out with a sense that Tom and Summer have infected each other with their opposite beliefs, and that this is going to continue to affect both of them, for good and ill.

Especially with Autumn on the horizon.

High-Level Intensity

The Hurt Locker

Directed by Kathryn Bigelow

Years ago, I had a panic attack while reviewing Saving Private Ryan, and it took supreme effort on my part to reel it in. The cause? The very grim realization that my little boys, then two and newborn, could someday be embroiled in such grisliness as the Normandy invasion, and that I’d have no way to protect them. That utter loss of control, an obvious aspect of growing up and going one’s own way, never felt so terrifying. I had a similar experience this week, watching The Hurt Locker; only this time, it was because the movie, about a team of explosive ordnance detonators, brought home the dangers that my late father faced in World War II, when it was his job to neuter underwater mines. One false move, one tripped wire, and it would have been all over.

The men in The Hurt Locker live in an Iraq War where politics are almost irrelevant. They are immersed in the bare essentials of staying alive. While the gung-ho Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner) addresses each bomb situation like it’s an intricate puzzle—like Hercule Poirot exercising the little grey cells—his crew, Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) nervously point their weapons at any flicker of movement, which could be insurgents or skeletal cats. Only James has the real power of life and death, about which Sanborn and Eldridge are all too well aware.

Later in the movie, James’ team finds out that he keeps a box of electronics equipment—pieces of bombs he’s disabled—under his cot. He finds the equipment fascinating, a signature of some unknown deadly assailant, to which Sanborn sneers, “It’s just Radio Shack.” But that box implies a lot more about James’ personality, the hurt and otherwise unknown feelings he keeps crated up. A call home to a wife and baby ends with her calling his name into the void that is the desert. Later, when James is back home, we watch him adrift in the grocery store, no longer cock of the walk but just another faceless cog. Clearly, the thrill of the chase, the intensity of the act of disabling bombs, defines James, gives him meaning that he cannot find tending to his yard or playing with his son. It’s a characterization very much like the archetypal westerners you’d see in Budd Boetticher movies of the 1950s.

In addition to Renner, who flawlessly executes a very tricky role, much credit should go to director Kathryn Bigelow, who plunges us straight into this hot hell and never lets us duck for cover. At all times, we are painfully aware of the odds facing James and his men. We can feel the intense, sweaty tension that James, donned in a protective suit of Kevlar that looks like something out of Creature From the Black Lagoon, exudes when encountering a particularly tricky setup. When he removes said suit, in order to get a better handle, literally, on a juiced-up car bomb, he reasons that if he’s gonna die, he might as well be comfortable. We, however, like Sanborn and Eldridge, are stung by his alarming disregard of basic safety measures. At the same time, we can’t help but admire the tenacity and sheer brilliance of the man with the wire clippers. The Hurt Locker is a thrilling, tense movie, one that delivers a cold hard punch to our collective solar plexus, reminding us of the mundane and deadly threats faced by those we send to do our fighting.

—Laura Leon

Pair o’ Dicks Regained

Funny People

Directed by Judd Apatow

Some of the buzz around Judd Apatow’s new flick Funny People could lead you to believe that the writer director has abandoned the successful bromance beat (which he virtually owns).

Such buzz is misleading: Star Adam Sandler does not do for Judd Apatow what Paul Thomas Anderson did for Adam Sandler. Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love was a tightly constructed movie, the very confined nature of which highlighted Sandler’s surprising explosive capabilities as an actor. In a sense, Sandler’s unexpected darkness and volatility was the whole point of that earlier movie.

Funny People skirts similar territory by casting Sandler as comedian George Simmons, a super celebrity seeking to redress years of irresponsibility and self-absorption after discovering he has an odds-on terminal illness.

But the movie is not titled Remorseful People or Terminally Ill Dude. So, despite the seemingly high stakes for Sandler’s character, the real motion of the plot is carried by the interaction of Sandler, Apatow go-to guy Seth Rogen and a bunch of, well, funny people.

Rogen is Ira Wright, a struggling stand-up hired by friendless Simmons to keep him company in his illness. They, of course, know a great many comedians and comic actors: Wright’s friends are aspiring; Simmons’ are more recognizable (the movie is a cameo fest: Paul Reiser, Ray Romano, Sarah Silverman, Dave Attell, etc., etc.).

And funny people, in this case, make for a pretty funny movie. Both the character interactions and the scenes showing stand-ups at work provide some laugh-out-loud moments. Apatow and his crew have chops.

Vulgar chops.

Which brings us back into familiar territory. Apatow is the manchild’s auteur. His characters are at their best, their most vibrant and engaging, when they are, in some views, at their worst: juvenile, crass and potty-mouthed to the point of seeming developmentally stunted.

Though Simmons makes what the viewer must assume to be sincere attempts to come to terms with his illness and the possible outcome, he doesn’t really, can’t really, evolve. In Apatow’s world, the point isn’t really progress; it’s in the purity of those early male bonds. Funny People is, if anything, more true to that view than, say, Knocked Up.

Simmons’ gestures toward the ambiguous appeal of adult normalcy largely fail, and his triumph, such as it is, has him regaining the pre-celebrity comfort of swapping dick jokes with a bro.

Call it a cocktharsis.

Apatow, or one of his crew, likely would.

—John Rodat


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