07 August 2009

Feel-Good Movies

While in New York last month, I managed to catch up on a couple of movies that I hereby recommend with few reservations. The first, (500) Days of Summer, I recommend with no reservations at all, except the warning that it will make an uncomfortable date movie if your relationship hasn’t endured past the 501-day mark. The movie is all about the ways in which a girl (Zooey Deschanel) can speak her mind clearly and often, while her boyfriend (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) listens intently without understanding a single word. If there’s any chance that you’re in a couple like that — go see something else together, then catch (500) Days on your own.

The film is far from perfect — I agree with just about everybody else that the smarty-pants kid sister is a near-fatal flaw in the script — but when it gets things right, it’s pleasurable to the point of making you really want to live in Los Angeles, so long as you could also be young, heterosexual, and look like either of the leads. On occasion, the film is even wise, as in an extended sequence, when Gordon-Levitt attends a party in hopes of rekindling his affair with Deschanel, that splits the screen between his expectations and reality, playing out simulta­ne­ously.

Gordon-Levitt got his start on 3rd Rock from the Sun, a sitcom I seldom watched for the simple reason that, when I worked in televi­sion, I didn’t watch any. But in the films Mysterious Skin and Brick, I found him a versatile actor of great skill — and, as he demonstrates here, great charm, as well. (Imagine! A comic–romantic lead who doesn’t need to make fart jokes in order to carry the picture!) He proves himself adroit in comic dialogue, yet his strongest scenes, polar opposites in mood, are those in which he doesn’t say a word: the morning-after strut that turns into an elaborate dance number, and the aforementioned “reality” scene at the party.

Deschanel has less to do. That seems to be par for the course in rom–coms, which really seem predicated on the assumption that male audiences won’t tolerate any film, date movies included, that’s split evenly between male and female perspectives, whereas female audi­ences ostensibly will put up with anything. (Indeed, about the only way to see a rom–com in which you get more than 15 percent female perspective is to see a lesbian rom–com.) But Deschanel has an intriguing screen presence; she’s witty and beautiful, without being a typical Hollywood Barbie Doll, and you never question why Gordon-Levitt would fall for her.

Pixar’s computer-animated Up features another adorable couple, Carl and Ellie Fredricksen, and so long as it concentrates on them — the first 20 minutes of the picture, really — it’s a masterpiece. Thereafter, I lost interest: the picture lacks both visual imagination and plausible logic.

But, oh, those first 20 minutes! We see Carl and Ellie grow from childhood to old age, sharing a sweet, largely uneventful marriage, in an eloquent sequence of nearly wordless scenes. After Ellie’s death, Carl (voiced now by Ed Asner) is alone, about to be evicted from his home — until he makes one of the greatest escapes in cinema history. When those balloons burst free and hoisted the house heavenward, I didn’t regret one cent I’d paid for 3-D glasses: the scene is a vision of pure fantasy. Isn’t there some childish part of all of us that looks up at a balloon and dreams of floating off to magic lands?

Trouble is, the picture keeps going — to a jungle that’s almost identical to the one in Pixar’s The Incredibles, and similarly presided over by a crazed genius. Ho-hum. But it’s here that the screenplay makes its most unreasonable demands of us.

I’m perfectly prepared to believe that a little old man can collect enough balloons to sail his two-story house to South America. When he gets there, though, I stop believing. Carl is all about correcting the past — taking the chances, making the voyages he never did before. Now he has the chance to restore the reputation of Charles B. Muntz, his boyhood idol (Ellie’s, too, and the starting point of their relationship), after decades of derision and neglect. Yet Carl refuses to help, even risks his life in order to thwart Muntz — because of a promise made to a kid he barely knows.

I’m all in favor of Disney pictures painting a rosy portrait of cross-generational friendship. You see that in a lot of their films. Hayley Mills won over Agnes Moorehead in Pollyanna, for instance, and I didn’t complain about the plausibility. But this is going too far.

A closing word on a new film I’m reluctant to see, Julie & Julia. It’s gotten pretty good reviews, at least for the sequences that interest me most: those that concern Julia Child, the woman who inspired me to try my hand at cooking things more complex than Campbell’s Soup. Meryl Streep stars, and though I usually prefer her in lighter fare and comedies, she’s working so damned hard to impersonate Child in the clips I’ve seen that I don’t for one second think about anything other than her acting choices. The impersonation isn’t even much good. If this was what the producers were after, why didn’t they hire Danny Aykroyd? Or, for that matter, me?

Though Streep is well-known in France, Julia Child is not. I’m not sure the picture will get much distribution, so you’ve got plenty of time to see it for yourselves, then tell me whether I should bother.


Elaine Fine said...

You can add two more positive reviews (mine and Michael's) to the chatter. It is a beautifully-made movie, and very much worth seeing. It is a true feel-good movie, because it makes you want to go home and cook! Really.

wine&baguettes said...

I loved Julie & Julia. Both sides of the story made me laugh. I remember Julie Child from my childhood; she was already 60-some odd years old by then. I felt cheated that I knew nothing of her life before my very late awareness of her iconic stature. The movie has helped fill the gaps.

As for Julie, love her. When she lay on the kitchen floor throwing a tantrum, I thought that is so me in my late 20s, early 30s. Now, I just have the tantrum in my head, reminiscing about the days when I thought it was ok to be an adult and lie on the floor and cry.

And you're right, the Streep impersonation is like a caricature of Julia. But if you loved Julia, then it's hard not to love Meryl playing Julia. I so believed Meryl as Julia when she broke down over the announcement of her sister's pregnancy. How could she not be happy for her sister? Of course, she is happy but the news just solidifies that there is something irreparably wrong with her, not some mutant gene that has plagued her generation of the family.

Did I mention that I liked the movie?