Category Archives: Romantic Comedy

Singing! Dancing! Oppression! Hipsters **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 3, 2011)

If the psychic energies of the average mass of people watching a football game or a musical comedy could be diverted into the rational channels of a freedom movement, they would be invincible. –Wilhelm Reich

Free your mind and your ass will follow. –George Clinton

Here are two things generally not mentioned in the same breath: “Colorful musical romp” and “Khrushchev-era Soviet Union”. But I have to say it…Hipsters is a colorful musical romp set against a backdrop of the Khrushchev-era Soviet Union. Lightly allegorical and doggedly retro, Valeriy Todorovski’s film is a mashup of Absolute Beginners and Pleasantville, with echoes of West Side Story, Grease and The Wall.

It’s 1955, and life is a bit on the gray side for 20-something Muscovites, especially within the ranks of the Young Communist League, whose idea of a good time is ruining everyone else’s. This is how we meet League member/star athlete Mels (Anton Shagin) and his (sort of) girlfriend Katya (Evgeniya Brik), who is the commissar of his particular auxiliary.

Lovely but priggish Katya is leading a patrol of saturnine League members, who are on the hunt for stilyagi (“hipsters”) who might be having a night out (god forbid) enjoying themselves. Their quarry will not be tough to spot; with their pompadours and peacock threads, they stand out from the drab, state-mandated conformity that surrounds them. Katya and her gang soon detect the telltale sound of forbidden American jazz, zeroing them in on their prey. Armed with scissors, they proceed to unceremoniously cut up their coiffed hair and flashy clothing.

It turns out that Mels may be conflicted; while giving chase to several hipsters, he is stopped in his tracks after he is smitten by one of them (Oksana Akinshina), a fetching blonde named Polza (you half expect Mels to break into “Maria”). Maybe this whole stilyagi scene ain’t so bad after all, he figures, and lets Polza go with a promise that he won’t narc her out. The free-spirited Polza reciprocates with an implication that if he gets hip, he might get lucky.

Well, you know how easy guys are. Cue the inevitable montage, wherein Mels enlists one of the hipster dudes to give him all the requisite grooming, fashion and dancing tips. His transformation complete, Mels sets off to win Polza’s heart. It’s a wafer-thin plot, but I can’t think of too many genre entries that allow obstacles like narrative to get in the way of the song and dance (at 125 minutes, there’s plenty of both).

If you  love the song and dance, you’re sure to get a kick out of the energetic performances, over-the-top set pieces and eye-popping costumes. I found the song lyrics to be nonsensical at times; perhaps something literally got lost in the translation. Although the overall tone is fluffy, Todorovski saves room for political commentary (lines like “a saxophone is considered a concealed weapon” may elicit chuckles, but hold ominous undercurrents). I sense the film has deeper subtext in this regard (more attuned to, let’s say, Russian audiences?). Still, its prevalent theme, exalting self-expression and righteous defiance in the face of oppression whenever possible, is hard to miss. And, in light of the OWS movement (and our own ongoing culture wars) it’s a timely one as well.

One of his latest, funnier films: Midnight in Paris ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 11, 2011)

Dr. Drew-please help me. I’m a wreck. This is only the first line for my review of Midnight in Paris, and already I’m feeling defensive. Why is that? When will I be able to review a Woody Allen movie without feeling obliged…no, strike that…duty-bound to append superlatives with a qualifier like “…in years”. You know-as in, “This is Woody Allen’s best film…in years!” Why can’t I just say “This is a great film”? Is it the vacillating quality of his work over the last two decades? Or is it me? Am I stuck in the past? Have I become one of those sniveling fans Woody parodied in Stardust Memories-wringing my hands over the fact that his recent work is nothing like the “earlier, funny films” he made in the days of my golden youth? Wait…what’s that ringing in my ears? I feel nauseous. Oh, Jesus, I hope it isn’t a brain tumor. Uh, hello? Dr. Drew? Dr. Drew?

We’ve lost our connection, so back to the review. Allen continues the 6-year European travelogue that began in England (Match Point, Scoop, Cassandra’s Dream), trekked to Spain (Vicky Cristina Barcelona) then after a respite in N.Y.C. (Whatever Works) headed back to the U.K. (You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger) before settling in the City of Light for this romantic fantasy. Allen opens the film Manhattan style-with a montage of iconic Paris landmarks (strikingly captured by City of Lost Children DP Darius Khonji and co-cinematographer Johanne Debas). We are introduced to a successful but artistically unfulfilled Hollywood screenwriter named Gil (Owen Wilson).

Gil is engaged to Inez (Rachel McAdams). The two of them have tagged along with Inez’s parents (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy) who are in Paris on a business trip. Gil and Inez view Paris from differing perspectives. Inez is excited about the shopping and the tourist attractions, plus the fact that her bubbly friend Carol (Nina Arianda) is also in town with her boyfriend Paul (Michael Sheen), a pompous art professor who has been invited to speak at the Sorbonne. Gil, on the other hand, is one of those nostalgia junkies who tend to wax melancholic about “being born at the wrong time”.

To be sure, part of him does appreciate being alive in the 21st century, but if he had his druthers, he would gladly swap his luxury Malibu digs for Paris (the perfect place to polish the draft of his first novel). If he pushed the fantasy to its limits, Paris in the 1920s would be ideal; consorting in Left Bank cafes with Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Eliot and Stein. Meanwhile, Inez and her parents hope Gil’s romanticized musings are just a silly phase that he’s going through.

To Gil’s chagrin, Inez appears enraptured by Paul’s windy professorial pontificating about the landmarks they visit (at one point, he self-importantly “corrects” a French tour guide on trivia regarding a Rodin sculpture). While Inez admires his “brilliance”, Gil sees Paul for what he really is-an insufferably arrogant pedant. Pseudo-intellectuals have been one of Allen’s pet targets over the years; in a later scene where Gil finds himself in a unique position to stymie the ever-chattering Paul , I was reminded of that classic “I happen to have Marshall McLuhan right here” moment in Annie Hall.

One evening, after Gil has done a little more wining than dining, he takes a head-clearing, late-night stroll back to the hotel, leaving a less-than-pleased Inez on her own to go out partying with Carol and Paul. Gil finds himself lost in the labyrinth of Paris’s narrow backstreets.

As he stops to rest and get his bearings, the bells begin to toll midnight. At that moment, a well-preserved vintage Peugeot Landaulet pulls up, seemingly out of nowhere. A lively group of well-oiled young party people invite him to hop on in and join their revelry. With a “what the hell” shrug, Gil accepts the invitation. Now, so I don’t risk spoiling your fun, I won’t tell you much more about what ensues. Suffice it to say that this will be the first of several “transportive” midnight outings that will change Gil’s life.

Allen re-examines many of his signature themes-particularly regarding the mysteries of attraction and the flightiness of the Muse. He also offers keen insights about those who romanticize the past. Do we really believe in our  hearts that everything was better “then”? Isn’t getting lost in nostalgia just another way to shirk responsibility for dealing with the present?

Earlier I made a tongue-in-cheek analogy between Allen’s “earlier, funny films” and the “days of my golden youth”. Were Woody’s movies really “funnier” then-or are they merely  portals back to a carefree time when I still had my whole life ahead of me? Lest you begin to think that this is one of his Bergman-esque excursions-let me assure you that it’s not. It’s romantic, intelligent, perceptive, magical, and yes…very funny. There’s a fantastic supporting cast, including Marion Cotillard, Kathy Bates and Adrien Brody. In fact, I will say this without qualification: This is a great film. Never mind, Dr. Drew…I’m cured!

SIFF 2011: Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 4, 2011)

Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same is about as benign as a midnight movie gets. Sort of a mash-up of (a less funny) Clerks with Coneheads, it’s a wildly uneven and self-consciously campy affair that’s just endearing enough to make it tough to dislike. Writer-director Madeleine Olnek’s setup is clever; scientists on a distant planet theorize that the holes in their ozone are exacerbated by the disruptive vibes of lonely singles with too many “big feelings” (i.e. unrequited love). Their solution? Send the culprits to Earth, each with a directive to hook up with a human, who will of course break their heart and put them off of this silly love thing.

The story follows the travails of three of these exiles, one of whom ends up with a socially awkward NYC store clerk (Lisa Haas). There are some genuine laughs, particularly whenever Olnek hits on some universal truths about relationships, but I wish there had been more of that and much less of a subplot involving two “men in black” who engage in scene after scene of painfully unfunny banter (quite amateurishly acted, as well) that drags the film down. The good news is that Olnek does display enough of an assured hand to hint that better things could be on the way in future.

Don’t ask, don’t tell: The Freebie ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 9, 2010)

Men and Women stoop to conquer
Men and Women stoop so low
Men and Women filled with doubt
They scream about what they don’t know

-from “Myn and Wymnyn”, by Uncle Bonsai

The tagline for the romantic comedy When Harry Met Sally triggered a flurry of panel discussions around the water cooler back in 1989 with its rhetorical question: “Can two friends sleep together and still love each other in the morning?”

In her 2010 directorial debut, The Freebie, actress Katie Aselton (The Puffy Chair) ups the ante by asking “Can a married couple award each other a mutual pass to sleep with someone else for one night…and still love each other in the morning?” Perhaps the bigger question is: “Are human beings even wired in any way, shape or form to remain truly monogamous?”

Aselton casts herself as Annie, one half of an attractive, happily married thirty-something L.A. couple (no kids). Well, at least on the surface, it would appear that Annie and her Jackson Browne lookalike hubby Darren (Dax Shepard) are a fun-loving, happy-go-lucky pair. In fact, they are so goddamned good looking, textbook compatible and in tune with each other’s feelings that you want to throttle them. Well, not literally-but you catch my drift; especially if you’re as bitter and disillusioned as me (and isn’t everyone?).

However, you know what they say about that dreaded “7-year itch” (guess how many years Annie and Darren have been betrothed). The first harbinger of trouble in paradise arrives one night, following an awkward mission abort on a lovemaking session.

Before any uncomfortable conversation can ensue, Darren quickly suggests a “race” to see which one of them can first complete a minute crossword, and Annie eagerly agrees to this whimsical distraction from the elephant in the bedroom (I was reminded of the classic scene in Annie Hall where Woody Allen is ranting in the middle of the night to his significant other about the JFK assassination, and she suddenly blurts out with “You’re using this conspiracy theory as an excuse to avoid sex with me.”).

The Talk inevitably occurs a few nights later, wherein they realize that, despite their undying commitment to the marriage, their sex life could use sprucing up.

This is the point in the film where you may feel compelled to start yelling at the screen. Darren and Annie agree to give each other a “free pass” for one evening; in short, mutual “permission” to have a one night stand outside of the marriage, with a few “don’t ask, don’t tell” caveats. The theory is that this will strengthen their love and trust in each other. This is an interesting idea, in theory-but if you know anything about human nature, as I said, you may begin yelling at the screen at this juncture…begging them not to do it.

They do it. God help them. Why do people always tinker? It’s never perfect enough, is it? Is anyone ever truly happy and content, no matter how good they’ve got it? Silly creatures. There are unanticipated consequences, natch. Still, you will be compelled to stick with these two idiots, to just see how it all plays out (in for a penny, in for a pound).

I would have been doing even more yelling at the screen, had this been a typical Hollywood rom-com, but it’s not. Aselton has delivered a well-acted, refreshingly realistic look at the complexities of love and modern relationships; warm, touching, funny and engaging without leaning on hackneyed plot contrivances.

I liked the fact that there is no pat denouement, wrapped up with a bow; because real relationships (and our lives in general) rarely play out that way. I understand that many of the scenes were improvised; this gives the film its naturalistic vibe.

It’s rare these days to discover a perceptive film for grownups, that actually has something substantive to offer, without wearing out its welcome. Kind of like a perfect relationship…if you’re lucky enough to be in one, it would behoove you to heed the film’s message: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Guys have body issues, too: A Matter of Size ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 16, 2010)

You know-us dogs aren’t really so much of the dogs that we think we are.

-from the 1955 film Marty

When you think “star athlete”, it invariably conjures up an image of a man or a woman with zero body fat and abs of steel. It certainly bears no resemblance to the doughy disappointment peering back at us from our full-length mirror (well…speaking for myself). Granted, there is the odd exception-Babe Ruth, CC Sabathia, David Wells, George Foreman, John Daly and Charles Barkley come to mind (and give some of us hope). Not that I ever considered pro sports as a career-but at some point in our lives, those of us who are “persons of size” must make peace with the cards we have been dealt.

Herzl (Itzak Cohen), the unlikely sports hero of a delightful audience-pleaser from Israel called A Matter of Size has been dealing with his “cards” for some thirty-odd years, and has yet to come up with a winning hand. Sweet-natured, puppy-eyed and tipping the scales at 340 pounds, he lives with his overbearing mother, Mona (Levana Finkelstein) and works at a restaurant, commandeering a salad bar.

Mona loves her son, but has odd ways of expressing it (chiefly due to her lack of a social filter). “You’re getting too fat!” she scolds, belaboring the obvious; in the next breath she’s encouraging him to finish up some leftovers in the fridge (eating and complaining…two things my People excel at).

Just when you think the situation couldn’t get more demoralizing for the hapless Herzl, he gets fired from his job, essentially for being visually unaesthetic to the workplace (read: Management objects to having a morbidly obese employee tending the salad bar).

But then, two things happen to Herzl that could potentially turn his present state of gloom around: he experiences a mutual spark of attraction with a lovely woman in his weight watchers group (Irit Kaplan) and finds a new job at a Japanese restaurant, managed by an ex-pro sumo coach (Togo Igawa). Guess what happens? (Hint: As you probably know, sumo is a sport that celebrates and reveres big fellers, elevating them to rock star status).

It would have been easy for directors Sharon Maymon and Erez Tadmor to wring cheap laughs from such a predominately corpulent cast, but much to their credit (and Danny Cohen-Solal, who co-scripted with Maymon) the characters (and actors who play them) ultimately emerge from their trials and tribulations with dignity and humanity fully intact.

Even the sight of four supersized Israeli gentlemen bounding through a grassy field, garbed in naught but their lipstick-red mawashis makes you want to stand up and cheer (as opposed to pointing and snickering). Ditto for an endearing, sensitively directed seduction scene between Herzl and his girlfriend, and a subplot concerning one of Herzl’s buddies who, empowered via the sumo training, begins his journey of coming out as a gay man. Needless to say, the film is ultimately about self-acceptance, in all of its guises.

And that’s a good thing.

Von liebe und schnitzel: Soul Kitchen **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 18, 2010)

You know, it’s great when you can find a nice palette-cleanser to tide you over during these dog days at the multiplexes, as the last crumbs of empty-calorie summer fare are cleared from the table to make room for the heartier fall menu. Soul Kitchen is one such cinematic soufflé; it bakes up light and fluffy, stopping just this side of demanding any deeper contemplation, yet it is still substantial enough to leave you feeling pleasantly full.

Equal parts romantic comedy, foodie film, and (mildly) raunchy screwball farce, German writer-director Fatih Akin’s breezy story concerns a grubby but amiable young restaurateur named Zinos (co-scripter Adam Bousdoukos) who has converted an abandoned warehouse in Hamburg’s Wilhelmsburg quarter into a funky eatery called “The Soul Kitchen”.

Operating on the cheap, Zinos is not only the manager, but the cook as well, serving up your basic beer ‘n’ pizza, schnitzel and French fries menu to a not-so-picky neighborhood clientele. If Zinos seems a bit harried and distracted, it’s due to the impending departure of his journalist girlfriend Nadine (Pheline Roggan) to China.

Zinos’ separation anxiety comes to a head when he joins Nadine and her family for dinner at another restaurant, where the two have an embarrassing public spat. Just a few moments later, that restaurant’s head chef, Shayn (Birol Unel) quits in a huff after losing his shit when a customer demands that his gazpacho (a Spanish soup, traditionally served cold) be heated up for him. The two sulking men are soon commiserating outside, where the pragmatic Shayn asks, “So, do you have a job for me?”

Although Shayn  admires what he refers to as the “Romanesque” ambiance of the Soul Kitchen, it doesn’t take long for him to ascertain that Zinos’ pedestrian menu could use sprucing up. At first, the regulars are bewildered by the “fresh sheets” and the upscale presentations on their plates. “Where’s our fries, burgers and pizza?” they demand-to which Shayn rebuffs “Get your pizza at the supermarket! Culinary racists!” before storming back to the kitchen.

Things settle down, the word gets out, and business picks up as the eatery gains hipster cachet. Zinos is not out of the woods yet, however. His brother Illias (Moritz Bleibtrau), a convicted thief, shows up unannounced on his doorstep, fresh out of prison on work release. Things get (as Arte Johnson’s catchphrase used to go on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In) “Velly interestink…but schtoo-pid!”.

Bousdoukos (whose passing resemblance to Jim Morrison is amusing, considering the title) and Bliebtrau have good chemistry as the brothers. Keep an eye out for the great Udo Kier in a minor role. Although many elements of the narrative feel familiar, the combination of energetic performances, well-chosen music (featuring everything from Louis Armstrong and Ruth Brown to Curtis Mayfield and Burning Spear) and Akin’s fresh directing approach make up for it. Sometimes, it’s all about presentation, ja ?

Blu-ray reissue: Delicatessen ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 11, 2010)

Image result for delicatessen 1991

Delicatessen – Lionsgate Blu-ray

This film is so…French. A seriocomic vision of a food-scarce, dystopian future society along the lines of Soylent Green, directed with great verve and trademark surrealist touches by co-directors Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro (The City of Lost Children). The pair’s favorite leading man, Dominique Pinon (sort of a sawed-off Robin Williams) plays a circus performer who moves into an apartment building with a butcher shop downstairs. The shop’s proprietor seems to be appraising the new tenant with, shall we say, a “professional” eye? In Jeunet and Caro’s bizarro world, it’s all par for the course (just wait ‘til you get a load of the vegan “troglodytes” who live underneath the city streets). One sequence, involving a hilarious, imaginatively staged sex scene, stands on its own as a veritable master class in the arts of film and sound editing. The arresting visuals really come alive in Lionsgate’s Blu-ray edition.

Flowers of bromance: I Love You, Man ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 28, 2009)

Oh, bloody hell…not another Rush tribute band.

Matt Groening once observed: “Sex is funny. The French are a funny people. Then why is it that no French sex comedies are funny?” On the other hand,  Roger Ebert once lamented about “a trend in which Hollywood buys French comedies and experiments on them to see if they can be made into English with all the humor taken out.” I generally concur with both those sentiments, but I think I have found the exception to Groening’s and Ebert’s rules- in the guise of a smart, funny and warm French comedy that has inspired an equally smart, funny and warm American remake.

Okay, so Patrice Leconte’s Mon Meilleur Ami  (my review) was not a “sex” comedy, nor was it a huge hit with critics or audiences (I caught flak from some readers for including it in my Top 10 films list for 2007). I’m not gloating here-but obviously, someone felt Leconte’s film to be worthy of a Hollywood makeover, and the latest vehicle for Paul Rudd.  I Love You, Man is all that (and a large orange soda).

Rudd is Peter Klaven, a  good-natured L.A. real estate agent who has decided to pop the question to his ladylove, Zooey (Rashida Jones). Zooey immediately phones up a bevy of close girlfriends to share the happy news. When she asks her fiancé why he isn’t jumping on the horn to tell all his pals, he mumbles some vague excuse and tries to change the subject. It turns out that while Peter is adept at meeting women, he is more diffident when it comes to interacting with the dudes; he can’t readily cough up a candidate for his Best Man. Someone is going to have to come up with an Action Plan.

Desperate to find a good bud on such short notice, Peter seeks assistance from his gay brother (SNL’s Andy Samberg), who encourages him to go on a few “man dates”. Zooey pitches in. brokering a “poker night” invite for Peter from her best friend’s reluctant husband (a skulking Jon Favreau, hilariously effective here playing a supreme dick weed). Most of these intros and invites end in embarrassment and/or some form of social disaster. Just when all seems lost, a Dude ex Machina arrives in a free-spirited man child named Sydney Fife (Jason Segel). Teach me to dance, Zorba.

In its best moments , I was reminded of Barry Levinson’s Diner, which I consider the granddaddy of all modern “bromantic” comedies, as well as one of the most keenly perceptive observations about male friendship ever put on screen. I think it’s interesting to note that screenwriter Larry Levin (who co-scripted with director John Hamburg) also wrote a classic 2-part Seinfeld episode called “The Boyfriend”, in which Jerry develops a “man crush” on one of the N.Y. Mets (this film could be seen as an extrapolation on that theme).

In its worst moments, the film threatens to lean on that tiresome crutch of cheap gross-out humor that has put me off contemporary “comedies”, but thankfully, the reins are judiciously pulled in (Woody Allen has managed to make tons of funny films over a 40 year period without one scene involving projectile vomiting-so why can’t the current crop of comedy directors take lessons from this?).

Rudd and Segel (who previously teamed up in Forgetting Sarah Marshall) play off each other extremely well, and are obviously developing a solid comedy duo franchise (I think it would be a real kick to see them remake one of the Hope-Crosby “Road” movies-or perhaps that’s just me).

Rudd continues to perfect an onscreen persona as the modern comic Everyman. Segel’s performance recalls Donal Logue’s slovenly yet endearing self-styled hipster saint in The Tao of Steve. Thomas Lennon (best known as “Lieutenant Dangle” from the wonderfully twisted comedy series, Reno 911) is a riot as a love struck stalker (no spoilers, please). Lou Ferrigno (as himself) is an unexpected delight, unveiling some previously hidden comic chops, and air guitar geeks will swoon at the cameo appearance by the Holy Trinity of Canadian prog-rock. And if you have to ask who that is-you ain’t my bro, man!

Daze of love: Whatever Works *** & The 500 Days of Summer **1/2

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.

Like one of his earlier, funnier films: Vicky Cristina Barcelona ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 23, 2008)

Ay, mama.

Dare I say it? Woody Allen’s new film, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, is his wisest, sexiest and most engaging romantic comedy in years. Okay…truth? To rate it on a sliding scale: as far as his own particular brand of genial bedroom farces go, it may not be in quite the same league as, let’s say, Hannah and Her Sisters, but it handily blows the boudoir doors off of A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy.

The Barcelona-bound Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) are two young Americans who have decided to take a summer breather in the form of a Mediterranean getaway. Vicky, engaged to be married in the fall, is enjoying her last holiday as a single woman, and is looking forward to indulging her scholarly interest in Catalan architecture (she has a Gaudi fixation).

Cristina is taking a mental health break after self-producing and starring in a short film (which “she hates”) about the Meaning of Love. The women are warm friends, but polar opposites. Vicky is practical, analytical and guarded; a no-nonsense, borderline control freak. Cristina is adventurous and free-spirited, but suffers a bevy of neuroses and insecurities. In their own symbiotic manner, Vicky and Cristina are really two sides of the same coin.

Enter seasoned coin-flipper Javier Bardem, who drops the cattle prod and picks up an artist’s brush for a return to his main forte-portraying a smoldering heart breaker with the soul of a poet. In this outing, Bardem is Juan Antonio, a lusty Spanish painter who espies the two women in a Barcelona restaurant one sultry evening. Eschewing the usual small talk, he strolls up to their table and announces his sincere wish that the two of them come away with him in his private plane for a romantic weekend on a Spanish isle.

The incredulous Vicky bristles at the presumptuous come-on; Cristina shrugs off her friend’s warnings and votes for calling Juan Antonio on his bluff. What the hell, they’re on vacation-why not venture a little spontaneity (besides, it’s Javier Bardem, fer chrissake). Against her better judgment, Vicky reluctantly acquiesces to her friend, and off they go.

What ensues that weekend ultimately changes the lives of all three; not to mention any previous notions they may have had about los misterios del amor. Things really get interesting when Juan Antonio’s tempestuous ex-wife (Penelope Cruz) enters the mix

Allen’s playful screenplay deftly addresses the age old question: Are human beings really monogamous by nature? Is it realistic (or even fair) to expect one Significant Other to nurture and fulfill all of our physical and intellectual needs? And what’s wrong with occasionally breaking the mold of what constitutes a “relationship” between consenting adults? Jesus Cristos lizards, I’m sounding like Dr. Phil here…but you get the gist.

To be sure, this is a perennially popular theme in film; Francois Truffaut’s Jules et Jim being the most famous example and most obvious touchstone here. Also, the contrast of the voluptuous and almost shockingly blonde Johansson against the deep azure of the Mediterranean recalls Godard’s similar utilization of Bardot. Then again, Allen has made no secret of his long time infatuation with European cinema; to paraphrase the Woodman himself, “Hey, he had to mold himself after someone!” There are worse influences.

After three films in a row, I have now grumpily accepted Scarlett Johansson as Allen’s latest muse (we all know how he gets obsessed with his leading ladies). Is it just me, or does she always have the dazed look of someone who has just been shaken awake from a nap? Don’t get me wrong, the camera really loves her (her translucent beauty is a DP’s dream) but I find her husky monotone a bit stultifying at times. Perhaps her “method” is too subtle for me? Or am I just pining too much for the halcyon days of Diane Keaton?

Rebecca Hall (a Brit, actually) is a wonderful seriocomic actress, and someone to keep an eye on. She’s like a less twitchy Parker Posey. I think Cruz should get an Oscar nod for her work here (she’s that good). The Bardem and Cruz reunion is comedy gold (their first onscreen pairing since Jamon, Jamon in 1992).

Wisely, Allen gives Bardem and Cruz several scenes where they get to flex their acting  chops in-language; their performances really jump out of the screen in those moments. He is smart enough to understand an unfortunate anomaly that sometimes occurs when accomplished foreign actors are cast in American productions: their broken English often gets unfairly perceived as stilted acting.

I think Woody is back. And he’s made something that (sadly) is a bit of an anomaly itself at the multiplex these days: A hot date movie for grown-ups. So call the sitter, already!