Thursday, July 23, 2009

He's in love, but is she?

We've all been there or some place like it. You love her, but she insists that she's not interested in a long-term relationship. Eventually, you may come up with a more precise interpretation of her position; i.e., she might be open to going the distance, but not with you. If you're a she, just reverse the pronouns because this familiar bit of relationship calculus isn't gender specific. It is, however, the underlying observation that makes "500 Days of Summer" tick, and it's presented by director Marc Webb in ways that can be fun, although the movie sometimes feels self-consciously inventive.

Webb, who previously earned his living in the world of music videos, bolsters the story with lots of off-center -- or near-quirky -- detail, beginning with the main character's occupation. Joseph Gordon-Levitt's Tom wants to be an architect, but earns his keep writing greeting cards. He's good at it, too. He's smitten when Summer, the character who gives the movie its title, shows up as a co-worker. Summer (Zooey Deschanel) is the wilder and more assured of the two characters; it falls to her to make the first move. The movie then follows Tom and Summer's relationship, presenting it out of chronological order and from Tom's point-of-view. By bouncing around in time, Webb mostly succeeds in maintaining interest in a story in which the ending is revealed at the outset.

Watching Tom and Summer proves enjoyable, perhaps because co-writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber create some amusing situations. They also have a good grasp of 20something relationships -- or so it seems to someone who long ago left that stage of life behind.

Some of the movie's conceits -- using title cards to announce which of the 500 days we're watching and a musical number -- seem to have been contrived to impress us with their ingenuity; these stylistic flourishes make the movie more "creative'' than it needs to be. Tom and Summer hold our interest, not the hip excesses of the filmmaker. But even here, Webb occasionally hits his target. A split screen sequence that shows reality vs. Tom's fantasy about reality works well enough.

The same can be said of the entire movie. "500 Days of Summer" works well enough. The movie won't change your world, but it offers a view of life and love that's vaguely familiar to those who, like Tom, have spent time teetering on the cusp of maturity -- without being a hopeless goofball, as is the case with too many movie characters Tom's age.

Did Deschanel's character need more development? Probably. But "500 Days of Summer" succeeds -- at least in part -- because the emotional stakes never feel so high that most people can't identify with them.


"The Ugly Truth" is everything that ''500 Days of Summer" isn't: Predictable, formulaic and full of humor that feels as if it has been engineered in a factory where sleek romantic comedies roll off an assembly line. Katherine Heigl and Gerard Butler make a nice enough pair, but the material in "The Ugly Truth" seldom measures up. Heigl, who's working too hard at being funny, plays a tough-minded producer at a local television station in Sacramento; Butler portrays a loose-cannon talent who gives crude advice to the lovelorn on the morning TV show that Heigl's Abby produces. Borrowing a Cyrano de Bergerac twist that has Butler's Mike whispering advice into the Abby's ear, the movie gives its humor a sexual tilt. A scene in which Abby dons a pair of vibrating underpants feels as if it exists only to give the movie a major talking point. I mention it to give you an idea where this one puts its energies. Note: John Michael Higgins has the generic good looks of every local anchorman you've ever seen, which is fortunate because he's playing one.

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