Sunday, June 5, 2011

Review: 500 Days of Summer

So I just watched 500 Days of Summer. It came all the way back in 2009 and, if you don't recall (who could blame you?) features Joseph Gordon-Levitt stalking and eventually dating an ultra-spacey Zooey Deschanel. Her name is Summer, see, and she's part of his life for 500 days. (Like everything else in the movie, the title is too clever by half.)

Back in the heady days of 2004 I would have referred to 500DOS as "indie," not because it was independently distributed, but because it taps into that uniquely obnoxious vein of White Person Culture which values cultural self-awareness only second to vinyl recordings of pop hits from the 60s. Nowadays, I might associate both those traits with hipsters, but hipsters also require a heavy dose of irony in everything they do. 500DOS has no real irony, shamelessly wearing its heart on its sleeve. This forecloses the possibility that latter-day hipsters will ever accept it. Meanwhile, the higher-end bourgeois indie culture of the early 00s has developed into various more obnoxious subsets (or thinking about it, may have simply separated into its component pieces of yuppie trendster and grungy trendster) and is lost to us. As a result 500DOS seems like it was sort of a relic from the day it was released.

Nor was it a very good movie. It's self-consciously quirky to a fault, and then some. Joseph Gordon-Levitt works as copywriter for a greeting card company. Zooey Deschanel's favorite Beatle is Ringo Starr. There's an extended scene where the pair goes on a "date" in an IKEA which contains not a single line of dialogue resembling a sentence any living breathing human being has ever uttered. None of this is the fault of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who is awesome and gamely does his best, and a lot of it is the fault of Zooey Deschanel, who spends the entire running time being unncessarily evasive and batting her eyelashes.

But that's not what I'm here to post about today. I'm here to post about how 500 Days of Summer continues a disturbing problem with all these unbearable quirky "indie" films, a trend that must stop now. The problem is that they are all written by latent pedophiles.

EXHIBIT A: Juno



Once you've recovered from experiencing what might actually be the single worst line written in the history of cinema, check out the weirdly inappropriate relationship between Juno and Dwight from The Office! That's not even the worst of it: a significant portion of the movie focuses on Juno's even-more-inappropriate relationship with Michael Bluth. He is slated to become the adopted father of Juno's incoming child, and he also, as it turns out, wants to have an affair with our teenaged protagonist. The movie, to its credit -- and unlike 500 Days of Summer -- acknowledges that this behavior might be seen as "creepy." Still, the pairing seems far more natural than it should -- probably because the writers have Juno talk like she's a 27 year old radio host throughout the whole movie.

EXHIBIT B: Little Miss Sunshine



Yeah, so this movie was a big hit. Hide your kids, folks.

EXHIBIT C: 500 Days of Summer

In 500DOS, Joseph Gordon-Levitt's primary confidante and adviser is not one of his similarly-aged male friends, or one of this many co-workers. It's not even his girlfriend. No, the person that he goes to for advice, time after time... is a thirteen-year-old girl.

Listen, writers. On paper this might have seemed charming and endearing. It might have seemed like a good way to soften up JGL's character.

But watching, in live action, a thirteen-year-old girl dole out explicit relationship advice to a man in his mid twenties... it's just super creepy. Super duper creepy. Every time that little girl popped up on screen, I shifted uncomfortably in my seat and waited for the squad cars to show up.

So why does this keep happening? If I had to take a stab at it, I'd say it's a product of screenwriter vanity. When a Quirky Indie Movie revolves around an adult character (who is invariably a stand-in for the writer), you can almost always feel the writer straining to show us how pure and childlike that adult is, how vulnerable, how easily damaged by the cruel realities of life and love. And to show us just how sensitive and delicate they are, these writers make their fictional selves spend plenty of time hanging out with real children, in exactly the same way the writers themselves wouldn't, for fear of ending up on a registry somewhere.

On the other hand, when the main character in a QIM actually is a child (and invariably a stand-in for the writer fifteen years prior), the writers always succumb to the temptation to import their entire grown-up selves into the character. Which is to say, these kids never seem to be stupid in the ways kids generally are. I'm not suggesting you can't write a movie featuring smart kids, just that smart kids still don't act like miniature adults. Once you write a character that's adult in every way but physical development, it's not exactly surprising that all their relationships with grown-ups start seeming oddly adult as well.

So when 500 Days of Summer added the two together-- a childlike adult, slack-jawed with amazement at adolescent "mysteries" like finding true love, and a precocious kid, adept at snappy retorts and carrying a seen-it-all world-weariness -- is it any wonder that the outcome blurred some pretty major lines of social acceptability?

Look, 500DOS. Your heart was in the right place, I think. There are definitely elements in you that I found watchable. You had a lot of clever narrative ideas. Those splitscreen segments were great, even. But next time, think a little harder about what you're putting on the screen first, okay?

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