By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 18, 2009)
The fine art of eating and complaining: Whatever Works.
I anticipate a chorus of detractors. “So-Woody Allen has written and directed yet another fantasy about a neurotic, misanthropic middle-aged Jewish intellectual Manhattanite who meets a young, hot, wide-eyed Shiksa who is irresistibly (and inexplicably) attracted to him? Enough, already!” So he has written and directed another fantasy about a neurotic, misanthropic middle-aged Jewish intellectual Manhattanite who meets a young, hot, wide-eyed Shiksa who is irresistibly (and inexplicably) attracted to him, OK? And it’s smart, insightful and funnier than hell. You got a problem with that?
Allen may have found his most perfect avatar yet in Seinfeld co-creator/Curb Your Enthusiasm star (and fellow native Brooklynite) Larry David, who I think proves here that, contrary to what many may assume, he really can act. In his HBO series, David plays “himself” as a self-absorbed character whose latent hostility is primarily channeled via classic passive-aggressive behavior.
As Allen’s protagonist Boris Yellnikoff, there is nothing latent at all about the hostility. He openly hates everybody, including himself. A text book fatalist, Boris never passes up an opportunity to unceremoniously kick any tiny hint of enthusiasm to the curb and remind anyone in his proximity that it is all for naught.
A “retired” quantum mechanics physicist, Boris has chosen to live in a dumpy apartment and make a few shekels here and there giving chess lessons to “cretinous” children, whom he browbeats and berates like a Parris Island drill instructor. His social skills with adults aren’t so hot, either; still, he manages to find several intellectual Bohemian friends ; one suspects it’s because they are the only people who can tolerate his continuous, bristly diatribes about our cruel and unfeeling universe for any length of time.
When it comes to love and romance, Boris subscribes to accepting whatever Fate and Chance throws your way with a shrug; “Whatever works,” as he is fond of telling his friends. That credo is put to the test when Fate and Chance drops a young homeless woman with the unlikely moniker of Melodie St. Ann Celestine (Evan Rachel Wood) onto his doorstep (literally).
Melodie is a southern bumpkin who has run away to the Big City to escape her fundamentalist Christian mother (Patricia Clarkson) and good ol’ boy father (Ed Begley, Jr.). Boris reluctantly offers her his couch for a night, and I think you can guess what comes next. After this setup, Allen kicks the story into his patented Urban Fable mode, adding flourishes of Pygmalion and Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
It’s very theatrical, flirting with door-slamming farce, but Woody Classic. The cast is game, especially the always wonderful Clarkson and Begley, who both chew major scenery as their stereotypical Southern countenance undergoes an unlikely transformation once each gets a taste of the Big Apple. Allen also tosses a barb or two at the N.Y.C. art scene (reminiscent of John Waters’ Pecker).
Admittedly, this is the cinematic equivalent of a 12” remix of Woody’s Greatest Hits, but it’s got a great beat, and you can dance to it. Allen is not getting any younger, and if he occasionally relents his cranky contrarian tendencies and gives his most ardent fans what they want (i.e., something resembling his early, funny films), is that a bad thing? He’s given us 40 years of great laughs; and though I know in my heart of hearts that his best work is history, I’ll keep looking forward to his movies. What I am trying to say is: I know he’s not a chicken…but in these tough times, I can use the eggs.
Deconstructing Zooey: The 500 Days of Summer.
Speaking of Woody, some have compared director Marc Webb’s Sundance hit 500 Days of Summer to Annie Hall. While it obviously draws narrative inspiration from Allen’s post-deconstruction of a fizzled romantic relationship, it offers a fluffier, albeit ingratiating variation on that theme, buoyed by a hip soundtrack, winking references for film buffs, and the charm of its two leads.
At the beginning of the film, a narrator with mellifluous pipes informs us what we are about to see is “…not a love story.” It is, rather, a retrospective appraisal of a relationship that didn’t work out, between a hopelessly romantic young man named Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and a more cautiously pragmatic young woman named Summer (Zooey Deschanel). Tom and Summer Meet Cute at the office. She is “the new girl”, he writes greeting cards (uh…soul of a poet?). And in portents of a love affair born in emo heaven, they bond over a mutual appreciation of Morrissey (I’m sure that the filmmakers had ‘em at the Smiths reference at Sundance).
The “500 days” of the title refers to the length of said relationship. Screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber opt for the non-linear approach , giving us characters who (like Kurt Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim) appear to have become “unstuck in time” (day 147 might segue into day 18, which dissolves into day 310, etc.).
While this device does become “gimmicky” rather quickly, director Webb takes full advantage of the footloose structure to inject a lot of visual playfulness. He throws in everything from Bergman references to an exuberant, audience-pleasing MTV-style number.
Under scrutiny, the film isn’t much deeper than an MTV video; but it’s a fun ride all the same, with enough originality and inventiveness to separate it from the pack of largely vacuous piffle that passes as “romantic comedy” these days (I don’t sound bitter, do I?).
I’ve only seen Gordon-Levitt in two other films (Brick and The Lookout) but I’m impressed by his range; I think he’s got a long career ahead of him. Deschanel (America’s answer to Audrey Tautou) has an effervescent screen presence that (for me, at least) makes up for the fact that she plays the same quirky, saucer-eyed Object of Desire in everything I’ve seen her in; but who can resist those baby blues?
Like many first-time directors eager to pull out all the stops, Webb may have put too many eggs in one basket here-but I look forward to seeing what else this promising filmmaker has up his sleeve.