(500) Days of Summer

Why can’t this movie be as good as it ought to be? Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel as the leads in an unconventional, indie rom-com? I wanna see that. And I did for a long time, keeping this movie in my watch list for years after its release, never quite getting a chance to watch it, until this afternoon. The problem is that I’ve heard rumblings about the unevenness of (500) Days of Summer in the intervening years, and while I’ve tried not to let writers and friends prematurely influence my opinion, I couldn’t help but worry.

And for good reason. Not since Little Miss Sunshine have I seen an movie so concerned with checking off boxes on a list of indie cinema attributes. Greeting card writer that’s also an aspiring architect? Check. Non-stop soundtrack that makes the whole enterprise feel like a feature length music video with dialog? Check. Quirky friends? Check. Scads of peculiar visual flourishes? Check. The whole movie felt expected.

Now I understand this was the first feature length work for the director and his pair of screenwriters, and boy does it show. Camera shots and movements that seem ill chosen for the moment, or perhaps for to get a cool still for a poster. Dialog and themes that telegraph character behavior. I didn’t hate this movie, but I wish, perhaps, it had been created by some folks with either more under their proverbial belts, or more inherent talent for visual storytelling.

Oh yeah – and JGL’s character? Almost completely unlikeable to me. It’s hard for me to root for our hero when he’s obsessive and jerky so frequently throughout the running time. Still, it’s hard to deny some solid performances by the leads (and almost exclusively the leads). Along with an interesting take on the genre, they saved the movie for me quite a bit.

3/5

Little Miss Sunshine

I just rated Little Miss Sunshine 3 of 5 stars on my Netflix account. The automated system suggested I would give 4.5 stars, and indeed, I anticipated the movie as something within the bounds of my ever more snobby taste.

Before I continue I have to say that the acting was excellent. From Steve Carell to Alan Arkin, the performances depicted characters, not merely the cast.

The rest of the movie, disappointingly, began to feel contrived about halfway in. Now if you haven’t seen the film and want to judge for yourself, I suggest you stop reading, because I’m about to give away some details.

Still here? Okay.

I was fine with the travails of the Hoover clan as they drove on from New Mexico to California, Until Arkin’s character died in Arizona. It’s not so much the death that bugged me – rather, the family decides to plug on to Redondo Beach and sneak the body of Grandpa out the window of the hospital. And put him in the back of the Microbus. And drive his corpse through the desert to Cali-for-ni-a so they won’t miss little Olive’s beauty pageant. Did anyone else yell, “WTF?!?!” when that transpired? Am I the only one? I understand this is a movie, but it’s a movie with a script that takes place in the generally realistic present day world. Nothing up to this point prepared me for the dysfunctional family to turn suddenly and morbidly crazy. Nobody else in the traveling party put up much of a real fight against driving the remains of a family member through the desert just to make it to a beauty pageant.

Add to this a cop who doesn’t notice a dead body wrapped in a sheet in the back of the VW, a painful personal discovery for the older son Duane (because everybody on this Microbus of life has to suffer somehow), and the family dance on stage at the pageant, and you have a recipe for…well, it’s a recipe. And that’s the point. This film felt like it contained several elements of recent popular “Indie” film in America. Character driven story. Off-kilter humor. Non-mainstream sound track. Greater focus on cinematography. Heck, even I was delighted to hear not one, but TWO Sufjan Stevens songs in the film (well, one was during the end credits).

The wonderful acting, the characters, the film making – none of this, regrettably, can make up for the slightly cheated feeling I’m still experiencing as a result of the story and it’s palpably artificial plot constructs.

Here’s hoping that Gondry’s Science of Sleep leaves me better satisfied.