StopSmiling

Buy + Browse Back Issues

ONLINE EXCLUSIVES

eMailing List

  • Name
  • Email
EMAIL STORY PRINT STORY

In Theaters: (500) Days of Summer, Humpday and In the Loop

The Stop Smiling Film Review

EMAIL STORY PRINT STORY

Thursday, July 30, 2009


(500) Days of Summer
Directed by Marc Webb
(Fox Searchlight)

Humpday
Directed by Lynn Shelton
(Magnolia)

In the Loop
Directed by Armando Iannucci
(IFC Films)

Reviewed by Mark Asch

* * *

(500) Days of Summer
Directed by Marc Webb

When (500) Days of Summer isn’t preselling its soundtrack — Regina Spektor, Feist, Black Lips — scenes of its young couple at the movies or the record store are accompanied by Mychael Danna and Rob Simonsen’s score. In particular, a melancholy three-note snatch that sounds an awful lot like “Moon River.” The Summer of the title (indie crush object Zooey Deschanel, all wistful sanity and blue-plate-special eyes), is the kind of elusive, dreamy dream girl who, ever so briefly, goes lightly through the life of a passively besotted author-surrogate who can never truly possess her (though she’s totally game for sex). You know, the kind of woman who only exists in books and films written by guys. (And was only ever understood by Truman Capote.)

The Romantic here is Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), shown in an unnecessary thumbnail backstory as a teen in thrall to miserable-now Eighties Brit-pop, and swooning the minute Summer proclaims a similar love of the Smiths. It’s a Shins-in-Garden State moment, all but breaking the fourth wall to invite the audience to feel an affinity (whether cultural or, less charitably, demographic) with the movie. Now, I really like watching actors I like doing karaoke to songs I like. (She: a plainspoken “Sugartown.” He: a beer-slick yet surprisingly suave “Here Comes Your Man.”) But at what point does it become just too easy?

(500) Days of Summer doesn’t so much develop the relationship between infatuated Tom and noncommittal Summer as it does, like a mixtape, woo us with highlights: chronologically scrambled vignettes (days), along with an Oscar Wilde reference here, an Unknown Pleasures T-shirt there, and quirky standalone-on-YouTube sequences. ”Quirky” need not be a pejorative: a dancing-in-the-streets production number seems a natural extrapolation of Gordon-Levitt’s post-coital strut. Then again, Tom’s grounding advice-dispensing kid sister seems mostly a reminder of how much we all love Bottle Rocket, while split-screens and personalized Bergman parodies are stray corridors off Annie Hall. Similar taste in stuff, it seems, is not reason enough to love a movie.

Nor, of course, is it reason enough to love another person. This is an overdue point that Tom and Summer’s missed connection seems well-positioned to make, but Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber’s script seems more concerned with philosophy-of-the-rom-com questions of chance vs. fate. Which makes Summer’s shout-outs the cinematic equivalent of the Smiths songs Tom “just happens” to be playing as Summer flits past.

* * *

Humpday
Directed by Lynn Shelton

To go along with Summer’s moper-heartbreaker set-up, another dramatic structure as embodiment of the tortured male psyche: in Lynn Shelton’s Humpday, vagabonding beardo Andrew (Joshua Leonard) shows up unannounced at the home of Ben (Mark Duplass) and Anna (Alycia Delmore). He represents peripatetic nostalgia versus ovulating Anna’s forward-looking domesticity, and implicitly reminds Ben that choosing a life for oneself precludes the possibility of any others. From the triangle down to the Pacific Northwest setting, female director and feel for the turbulent currents and air pockets swirling and lurking around and between words, Humpday recalls Old Joy, but examples abound. Philip Saville’s film of Julian Barnes’ Metroland comes to mind, for similarly positioning its longed-for bohemia as a sexual one (and for positioning the wife in the audience’s blind spot, the better to side-swipe us and her husband with a revelatory monologue).

For Bohemia is a real place: “Dionysus”, in fact, the shared house of an uncertain number of crunchy hipsters defined by their enviably unattached bisexual flux. It’s at Dionysus (while Anna watches the pork chops go cold) that Ben and Andrew derive the idea of filming themselves — “two straight dudes bonin’” — for a local alt-porn fest. What starts as a bromantic game of gay chicken ends up a deadly serious effort to prove their unhungup attitudes towards sex. (“I wish I was more gay,” admits Andrew.)

Humpday works because, unlike Summer, its moments of truth and familiarity aren’t isolated. The leads are credited as “script consultants” to Shelton’s screenplay, and she lets them play scenes all the way out; the trajectory of Humpday seems dependent on the cast’s feel for where, and how, scenes will end up. Shelton rides out a harrowing tone shift when Andrew reveals the project to Anna; most filmmakers would shock-cut from Anna fish-mouthed to Anna screeching at her husband five minutes later. Duplass brings mumblecore experience; his explorations of socially oblivious or duplicitous behavior, sometimes overplayed past the point of the truthfulness he shoots for (e.g. The Puffy Chair), resonate here, in the many scenes in which characters wait for the other person to say what they secretly want to say themselves.

Shelton’s mumblecore-inspired on-the-fly visuals are undistinguished, but her sense of when to group and when to isolate people in the frame is deft, and Humpday, beyond the rigorous ramblings of its dialogue, is structurally disciplined as well. The first scene is actually kind of a spoiler.

**

In the Loop
Directed by Armando Iannucci

From the specifically vague to the specifically precise: Armando Iannucci’s In the Loop will improve upon multiple viewings, as its profane, profuse yet Xacto-bladed dialogue carves its own odd outlines into the memory.

As British and American politicos scurry to forge ahead with, or else forestall, an invasion of some unnamed Middle Eastern country, the dialogue concerns itself with what politicians call “optics” (James Gandolfini’s brass-balled general: “at the end of a war you need some soldiers left, really, or else it looks like you've lost”), hair-splitting, and status. The tempest begins when Tom Hollander’s low-level Minister “misspeaks”, as they say, in an interview, and spends the rest of the movie on parsing and walkbacks, under the watchful spittle of Peter Capaldi’s order-pecking spin doc Malcolm Tucker. From Tucker’s baroque threats of violence (“You'll find yourself in some medieval war zone in the Caucasus with your arse in the air”) to his radioactive sarcasm (“I'm sweating spinal fluid here”) to his creative cussing, beanpole Capaldi is as ferociously curdled as Richard E. Grant in Withnail & I, and just as much a legend in the making. (Here, anyway — Malcolm Tucker is already something of a folk hero in the UK, following his introduction in Iannucci’s TV series The Thick of It, which this feature version fills out with some sketch-comic support from both sides of the pond.)

In the Loop leaves policy out: motivations are handed down by unseen Prime Ministers and Presidents, characters seem mostly against war except when they’re for it, as a means to professional advancement or survival (except for Gandolfini’s belligerent dove, who gives this satire some support-your-troops CYA). Some have found In the Loop shallow for detaching its fevered gamesmanship from actual reasoning or consequences — but isn’t it rather chilling, how easy it is for the loop to form in a vacuum?

EMAIL STORY PRINT STORY

© 2010 Stop Smiling Media, LLC. All rights reserved.       // Site created by: FreshForm Interactive