I forgot my mantra

So, I woke up this morning thinking about 500 Days of Summer, which I saw almost 2 weeks ago, and which has since been on my mind a lot. I have this compulsion that, when I like something while still recognizing its obvious flaws, I have to either justify them or put them into a context that makes them more acceptable. Many of you have been down this road with me, Titanic, the Star Wars prequels, the Matrix sequels, Twilight... when I like something I can't fully approve of, it creates a crisis.

Which brings us back to the film in question. 500 Days is a quirky romantic comedy, funny, relatable, and genuinely moving, featuring excellent performances from its very engaging lead actors. It is also very obviously the director's first film, stylistically disjointed, and not as original as it wants you to think it is.

The aroma of the neophyte hangs heavily around 500 Days. Director Marc Webb has a few music videos to his name, but this is his first venture into feature film territory. It was also the first major project for screen writing team Scott Neustadter and Michael Webber (who, incidentally, teamed up again on the Pink Panther 2 script). Together this group had a lot of interesting ideas, and as first timers often do, decided to use all of them. There is an omniscient narrator, the non-linear timeline is made (overly) clear by a flip book displaying the numbers of the days, there is a dance number with a cartoon bird, mid-film the characters do b&w talking head interviews about the nature of love, there is an entire scene done in spilt screen, one half representing what the character hoped would happen, the other half showing what did happen, and a handful of other "non-traditional" devices used to underscore the odd romance of these quirky characters. Several of these ideas were good, both in theory and in action, but the combination was over kill, especially for a viewer who recognizes that they've seen them before.

Because sadly, if understandably, 500 Days is a 21st century, Woody Allen-less mirror of Annie Hall. From the beginning when the narrator tells us that the characters are not destined to be together, through the back and forth of the good times and the bad, to the end when they see each other again, and come to realize that despite the failure of their relationship, they've helped each other grow into the people they needed to become, it's hard to escape the fact that you've seen this story before. Beyond the general scope and structure of the films, there are details in which the latter more specifically mimics the former: the fact that he decides to go for it when he sees her singing in a bar, or the use of the split screen technique to comment on the state of the relationship, scenes where the man tries to get over the break-up by going on awful dates with other women, even showing the emotional gulf between the two characters by demonstrating their varying experiences when attending a film together (although, I must admit, I loved the way 500 Days used the Graduate here).

Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, I think it's clear that these guys are big Woody fans. And who can blame them? I wish I had made Annie Hall too, but (if you'll forgive my saying so) even Woody can't match the magic of that these days. And there are few endeavours as guaranteed to fall flat as the attempt to recreate someone else's originality.

All that said, you may wonder why I stand by 500 Days as a fun summer romance. The most important factor is the performances. Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon Levitt are young and beautiful, and they play their Ikea courtship scene with such enthusiasm that it's almost as charming as the lobster scene it wants to be. I have high hopes that they'll both go on to greatness. The director and writers also show promise, and I think it likely that now that they've purged themselves of all the self-conscious uniqueness of 500 Days of Summer, they might find in subsequent projects that they actually do have something to say that's genuinely new and different. And at the end of the day, there are so many cookie cutter love-stories out there, I do give this film credit for breaking the current mold, even if it got there by adopting an older one.


romadesala said...

Lady, you should be a film critic! Might earn ya a lil cash...

Barb said...

Your critique was analytical yet positive.

I empathise with those conflicting thoughts when you enjoy certain elements of a film enough to recommend it, despite noting its less than stellar aspects. You are more observant than 95 percent of movie goers, i suspect...

As for originality, many good directors have been influenced by others who preceded them -- to some extent. A rare few bring a totally unique story-telling style or vision to the screen (often in tandem with brilliant screenwriters and cinematographers).
images coming to mind recall some of those innovators: Sergei Eisenstein, Charlie Chaplin, Alfred Hitchcock, Busby Berkley, John Ford, Frank Capra, Orson Welles, Michael Powell, Billy Wilder, David Lean, Federico Fellini, Ingmar Bergman, Luis Buñuel, Akira Kurosawa, Woody Allen, Stanley Kubrick, Francois Truffaut, Hal Ashby, Mel Brooks, Mike Nichols, Robert Altman, Arthur Penn, Peter Weir, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Robert Redford, Tim Burton, Warren Beatty, Spike Lee, Baz Lurhmann, Peter Jackson ... I realize that not all their works were consistent nor met their individual zenith(s), and that this list excludes several rightfully esteemed, legendary directors (linked to most of my own favorites, e.g. To Kill a Mockingbird, directed by Robert Mulligan and written by another hero of mine, Horton Foote, and also left out such prolific talents as George Cukor, Wm. Wyler, Victor Fleming, Vincent Minelli, George Stevens, Ron Howard, Rob Reiner, Penny Marshall) i mention those who came to mind as creating most unusual concepts or juxtaposing cinematic elements in new ways.
Sorry for the long and winding tangent, but you inspire me... Anyway, after hearing of Olli's enthusiasm for the movie in question and all the interesting factors, even if a bit excessive, I think i'll find much in it to like as well and look forward to their future works.

Barb said...

p.s. You forgot your mantra?
i forgot Elia Kazan (and probably a lot more)

Alice Lee Dutton said...

No, Jeff Goldblum forgot his mantra. He has one line in Annie Hall (I think it's his film debut) and it is that. Your list is a good one. And it's only natural that artists be influenced by those who came before, but one may go too far ;-) It's like how the Royal Tennenbaums sits right on the line between homage and imitation... and this film crosses it.

I think people miss the connection because the humor is so different. The Woody Allen persona is nowhere to be found in 500 Days, where the comedy style is pretty specific to my generation.

Mimsy said...

Your new offering looks exciting (that Ice-ing takes the cake! haha) so, hope it inspires some creative contributions.
As for this thread, how i forgot to include Werner Herzog among those without precedent, i can't imagine.
What Coen brothers wrought with, O Brother Where Art Thou ? certainly deserves a place in the pantheon.
I only recently learned that title (not the quote's literary source) referred to the plot of an old movie I like -- Sullivan's Travels, starring Joel McRae (name connection too?), which looks at Hollywood's elite vs. the disenfranchised, and a director's attempts to bridge that gap. It's considered to be Preston Sturges' masterpiece.
Before i leave the blog exchange to other screen fans for a while, I must mention a few more visionary directors (besides my previous p.s. ref. to Elia Kazan), such as: Erich von Stroheim, Stanley Kramer*, Joseph L. Mankiewicz (who -- among many accomplishments - combined ghosts, sea lore, an exquisite screenplay and perfect actors for my lifelong favorite film) and Norman Jeweison (whom i got the chance to thank, at a forum, for reminding us all that a full moon must never be ignored). Also, Robert Wise, Ray Stark, Barry Levinson and ...
i MUST say, am grateful for emergence on the scene of a new force for enlightenment -- George Clooney!
*[i've a nice story about Stanley Kramer, but shall save it for another time]

Mimsy said...

Not only did i forget to laud Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese, but John Hughes, who created some of those magic moments that always make us happy, just thinking about them. I am saddened to hear of his sudden passing, and for the deep loss to his family, friends and colleagues.

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