Talking Movies

October 6, 2009

Love Happens

This film is a real oddity. Aaron Eckhart, Martin Sheen and Zodiac’s John Carroll Lynch all seem to think they’re in a serious drama about bereavement and grieving. Everyone else thinks they’re in a sappy rom-com…

The always charismatic Eckhart plays Burke Ryan, a psychologist who has moved from writing practical newspaper columns to an uneasy fame conducting workshops to deal with bereavement on the back of his best-selling book A-Okay (complete with inane hand symbol) about his recovery from the impact of his wife’s violent death at his side in a car-crash. While (against his better judgement) conducting a workshop in Seattle he encounters Manic Pixie Dream Girl,  sorry,  I meant florist, Eloise (Jennifer Aniston), who likes scribbling obscure words like Quidnunc in odd places in hotels. Eloise has a wonderful moment where she pretends to be deaf to avoid Burke’s advances but this film is not a romantic comedy, the only laughs come from Eckhart doing slapstick with a parrot. Instead, though Judy Greer and Dan Fogler give it their all as the archetypal best friends of the leads, this is that rare beast, a romantic drama.

Co-writer/director Brandon Camp started work on this film after his mother’s death, and there is a strong authenticity to much of the material, which he deserves great credit for tackling. Danny Boyle noted in his Sunshine commentary that cinema’s forward momentum makes it nearly impossible to grieve for a character, so this film is one of the very few you will see in mainstream cinema seriously tackling loss. Eckhart has a phenomenal scene when his character is ambushed at the end of one of the first workshop sessions by his father-in-law (Sheen) who lambasts him for exploiting the death of his daughter. Eckhart has no dialogue – we simply watch his completely silent reaction as the façade of confidence crumbles. Following this Burke makes it his mission to save ex-contractor Walter (Lynch) from his cul-de-sac of guilt over his young son’s death on a building site. Some of these scenes are rom-com structural tropes, but filled with such dramatic sizzle that they actually make an impression. But this tension between form and content is never satisfactorily resolved, even a climactic scene between Eckhart and Sheen becomes slightly suspect when obligatory romantic sappiness bleeds into it. There are also cameos by NCIS star Sasha Alexander as a photographer and Joe (charisma to burn) Anderson as Aniston’s unfaithful musician boyfriend that are bizarrely pointless.

This should be the kind of brainless fluff like The Core and No Reservations that Eckhart does to make money (without exercising his brain) to subsidise LaBute plays and films like Thank You For Smoking. Instead it’s a strange beast. Saddled with rom-com clichés and stranded half-way between romantic drama and serious drama it bends its formal structures to breaking point without quite achieving the heights that should come from such a daring imposition of challenging material in a trifling genre. A decent film, just a very confused one.

2.5/5

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September 1, 2009

(500) Days of Summer

(500) Days of Summer would be the best romantic comedy of the year but for the small fact that it’s really the perfect anti-romantic comedy.

It casually dispenses with the great mind-numbing cliché of romantic comedies whereby a secret comes to light in the second act that scuppers the relationship until a grand romantic gesture is made in the third act by one of the sundered lovers which leads to a happy ever after reconciliation, and pass the sick-bucket please. Here, thanks to a sublimely fractured chronology, we see office assistant Summer (Zooey Deschanel) and greeting card writer Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) break up (because Summer’s just not happy anymore, not because of some contrived plot device) before we’ve even seen them get together as a couple. Not of course that Summer ever admits to herself or Tom that they are a couple. A refreshing change from rom-coms featuring the male with commitment issues here we have the (common in real-life but scarce on the ground in movies) female with terminological issues: ‘boyfriend’ is out, it’s more ‘the guy I’m seeing’, or ‘the guy I’m sorta seeing’, or ‘this guy I’m hanging with, I may possibly start seeing in the future, I don’t really know…’

Events occur mostly chronologically but with jumps forwards and backward to replay events so that we get an emotional oomph from scenes we thought we understand playing differently in context, like Summer being bored by Tom’s quirky humour which it transpires is a riff she had started earlier. It is important to note that this film is not a non-stop laugh marathon, but it is always warm, and filled with touches that would not look out of place in Annie Hall; such as an extended split-screen sequence depicting Tom’s expectations of a party hosted by Summer versus reality, a sparingly used droll narrator, Tom’s lists of Summer’s traits that he adores being identical to his post-breakup list of Summer’s traits that he despises, and Tom’s friends desperately calling in his 12 year old sister Rachel (wise beyond her years, of course) for an intervention to stop his distraught crockery-smashing.

Writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H Weber penned Pink Panther 2 and this is extremely clever atonement because (500) Days is a systematic deconstruction of the tropes of rom-coms which annihilates the concept of idealised soul-mate romance they perpetuate. Zooey Deschanel is luminous when she needs to be but her character is also deeply flawed, as indeed is the always excellent Gordon-Levitt, whose everyman Tom has settled for second-best in life and thus treats Summer as a Hollywood style ticket to redemption. The ending manages to be hilarious, realistic and life-affirming while being deeply subversive of the genre. If you’re sick of the Sandra Bullock rom-com conveyor belt then you should catch Deschanel and Gordon-Levitt being both charming and emotionally realistic and soak up the feel-good factor of an indie rom-com with the most joyous musical number since Enchanted’s Central Park extravanganza.

4/5

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