August 27, 2009

(500) Days of Summer (2009)

Director: Marc Webb
95 min


Los Angeles, the present. The film is shown in non-chronological order, but this synopsis will be presented chronologically. Tom, a twentysomething who works at a greetings card company falls for Summer, his boss’s new assistant. They discover a mutual love of The Smiths and enjoy a work karaoke evening, but Summer has reservations about love, in contrast to Tom’s blind optimism. Tom and Summer become closer. Despite her interest in only being friends, they begin a casual romantic relationship, although Tom wants something more meaningful.

Tom and Summer watch ‘The Graduate’ in a cinema, after which she tells Tom they should stop seeing each other. Tom becomes depressed and skips work, which concerns his boss and friends. Tom and Summer meet again at the wedding of a colleague, where they dance. Summer invites Tom to a party she’s hosting. At this party, Tom discovers Summer is engaged. Tom skips work once more and begins to drink heavily. He returns to work after a few days only to quit; his illusions about love having been shattered. Tom decides to resurrect his architecture career, which he had previously suspended. He meets Summer by accident. She reveals his ideas about love were right all the time but she was never as sure about their relationship as she is about her marriage. At a job interview, Tom is interested in a fellow applicant and then asks her on a date. Her name is Autumn.


Presenting itself as a romantic comedy with a difference, ‘(500) Days of Summer’ is an independent film that offers a refreshing, unique look at love amongst twentysomethings. As the warm tones of the narrator makes clear in the opening moments of the film, it’s a story of boy meets girl, where boy falls in love but girl doesn’t. It stays true to its word too, rejecting what would be the simple, crowd-pleasing tactic of reuniting the two lovers. Once the relationship fizzles out, it’s dead for good, despite what ‘boy’ would like. Equally distinctive is the format in which the film is presented to us; non-chronological, jumping between different days and aspects of the relationship according to Tom’s own subjective memories. And Tom’s memory is certainly shown to be unreliable in a couple of key scenes, such as one in a record store, that are replayed from a more impartial perspective. Where Tom never noticed disharmony between himself and Summer before, it now becomes more apparent. He was just too blind to notice.

Much like most American independent films, which are barely definable as ‘independent’ anyway since they’re produced by subsidiaries of major studios, ‘(500) Days of Summer’ struggles to completely break free of the shackles of the conventions of the romantic comedy genre. This is a film that wants to succeed, that wants to opt-in, that follows much of the same template of films that it would turn its nose up at. Although the usual resolution doesn’t take place, it’s still feel-good entertainment, topped off by an ending that seems hopelessly neat and contrived. Tom has spent the film in love and when it doesn’t work out, his life threatens to fall apart. Yet Summer returns again to convince him he was right all along, and even more daft, Tom meets what might be the real love of his life in a job interview; hardly the best preparation for either. Of course you could guess his potential girlfriend’s name a mile off. And then the whole process that the film exists within begins again. The film could have taken a bit more of a risk and avoided clichés so easily, but American independent films don’t want to stay in their ghetto and chase the dollar quite shamelessly at times.

What will either sit easily or uneasily, depending on one’s perspective, is the film’s quite open and brazen attempt to ramp up its own ‘hip’ factor. One of many issues with ‘Garden State’ (2004), another ‘independent’ film obsessed by its own cool, was the excruciating scene in which Natalie Portman told Zach Braff to listen to The Shins and that they’d change his life. Did the makers of this film learn from how embarrassing this was handled? Instead, they’re over-concerned with demonstrating at every corner, using none too subtle indicators, just how trendy Tom and Summer are. This starts with their awkward mutual appreciation of The Smiths (surely every college kid knows The Smiths, right?), Tom’s casual wear of Joy Division and The Clash t-shirts and his singing of The Pixies at karaoke. The soundtrack is littered with the kind of tracks that staff at might have dreamt up as their ideal film soundtrack. It’s obviously reflective of the demographic the film is aiming itself at but it just seems so focus group driven at times. One wonders whether the use of Hall and Oates for a post-coital triumphant dance routine by Tom (which is a nice aesthetic touch incidentally) is meant to be ironic, because this track certainly surpasses the singer-songwriter by numbers drivel of Regina Spektor.

These criticisms might give the impression that ‘(500) Days of Summer’ isn’t a worthwhile film, but far from it. It’s mostly very entertaining indeed and there’ll be plenty of males similar to Tom who empathise with what he’s going through. The examination of male insecurity and self-absorption is akin to that of ‘High Fidelity’ (2000) and it’s a comparison I’m sure the film makers will probably accept and perhaps even welcome. One might suggest that we don’t see much of Summer’s experience of the relationship but the film’s deliberately subjective, with what we imagine to be the ‘truth’ open to scrutiny at all times. There’s a worry the depiction of Summer might be unfair but I don’t see that to be the case. She’s upfront and honest; it’s Tom who misinterprets gestures. The acknowledgement of the woman who inspired the film in the opening credits, with the epithet ‘bitch’ is presumably meant to be amusing but might, in the eyes of some, underline attitudes towards gender politics in the film. Early reviews of the film have so far been mostly very positive. I can’t share that enthusiasm. It’s often very sweet and the two leads are adorable, but there’s something quite calculated and cynical about it; plus it’s hardly as off-beat orcool as it would like to imagine.


June 4, 2009

Marriage: Italian Style (1964)


Director: Vittorio de Sica

102 min


Naples, the 1940s-1960s. Filumena, an attractive middle aged woman, falls ill whilst driving. Her neighbours take her to her bed. Domenico, her on-off lover, is having an affair with a young cashier, Diana, whom he plans to marry. Concerned about Filumena’s welfare, he visits. He has a flashback of how they met during the Second World War. She was a 17 year old prostitute and Domenico has kept her as his mistress ever since, with no intention of ever marrying her. He sets her up in apartments and provides employment but rejects any commitment. When he disappears for months on business, one of Domenico’s employees, Alfredo, proposes. Domenico returns and offers to introduce Filumena to his mother. An old, senile woman; Domenico asks Filumena to be her maid, even sleeping in the maid’s room. Filumena regularly observes Domenico’s faithlessness.

In the present, Domenico offers to marry Filumena on her deathbed, which is overseen by a priest delivering the last rites. After, Filumena reveals her deception. In her flashbacks, Filumena reveals she gave birth to three boys, which Domenico is unaware of. They have been raised by a family friend, unaware of who their real mother is. Domenico discovers this and seeks an annulment of their marriage. Filumena tells Domenico one of the boys is his. He then attempts to discover which. No closer to finding out, he and Filumena physically argue, then embrace. This time, they marry for real.


By the 1960s, neo-realism, the movement that had reinvigorated Italian cinema after the Second World War, was an afterthought for Italian film makers. Those directors who’d made their names with neo-realist films had moved into different projects and different genres. Fellini was becoming more ambitious and self-reflexive. Visconti entered a world of lurid and increasingly overblown melodrama. Rossellini worked on more historical-based films. Vittorio de Sica, one of the founders of neo-realism, was working more in the field of comedy, usually with Sophia Loren. ‘Marriage: Italian Style’ fits perfectly into this template, following the likes of ‘Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow’ with its typically Italian ribald sense of humour.

This said though, despite the admiration of Hollywood (the film collected two Academy Award nominations but didn’t the Academy just love anything Italian in this era?), one can’t help but thinking that de Sica, after directing the seminal ‘The Bicycle Thieves’ and ‘Umberto D’, is spreading his talents a bit too thinly here. The remaining former neo-realists adjusted to the decline of the movement (although a relative latecomer, Pasolini was doing his bit with ‘Accatone’ and ‘Mamma Roma’), but de Sica seems to have settled into a nice routine of undemanding and trivial comedies, albeit those that have a fair amount of entertaining qualities. Doubtless they made Loren a star and contributed to Mastroianni’s iconic status, but one feels that they do no long term favours for any personnel involved.

Still, Loren is nothing if not impressive, carefully balancing a series of emotions as she tries to hoodwink the lover who’s kept her at arm’s length for two decades, proving that there’s far more to her than meets the eye. Her acting gifts match her looks. Already in her collaborations with de Sica, she’d proved herself more than capable of breaking out of the carefully constructed image of her, whether it’s the more comic performances in ‘The Gold of Naples’ or the more serious, dramatic performances of ‘Two Women’. Here, she shows an equal amount of range. There’s no doubt Filumena’s role is given more importance by de Sica, thus giving Loren more to work with. Mastroianni looks suave and dapper, but is really playing a by-numbers cad who finally sees the error of his ways. He’s deliberately afforded little depth.

There’s a nice degree of if not social satire, than social observation, in how the Filumena-Domenico relationship functions on a grander level. She runs his businesses and makes him wealthier and then takes care of his ailing mother. All of the while, he’s playing the field, moving from one woman to the next. He’s far more dependent on her than he cares to imagine. Yet she’s able to seize the initiative and make their relationship more one of equals through initially hoodwinking him into marriage and then stalling his attempts to annul the marriage by teasing him about which of her three sons might be his. She claims it’s one, perhaps it’s all three. There’s some nice comic moments as Domenico tries to remember dates or thinks which of the boys most takes after him. Filumena’s power lies in his curiosity and inability to find out the truth. She demands that all her children must be treated equally. Whether there’s any political undercurrents to ‘Marriage: Italian Style’, it’s difficult to say, given the sheer superficiality of this frothy farce, but there’s definitely a sense of bringing the bourgeois bounder down a peg or two from the initial feigning of illness to his final submission of her will.

‘Marriage: Italian Style’ is genuinely fine on its own merits. Had it not been the collaboration of seriously talented personnel, you’d overlook the shallowness quite easily and just enjoy. There’s that constant impression though that you’ve been short-changed somehow; that ultimately, it’s a nice-looking, nicely-acted but completely inconsequential piece of work that could have been better, more substantial. Whilst it’s amusing in the main, the more bawdy aspects of humour just seem lazy. When Filumena and Domenico first make love, the next time we see Filumena, she walks down the street and dozens of boys and men just gawp at her, transfixed. This scene could have come from hundreds of films, which maybe even imitated this one, but it still feels too obvious. It’s lightly handled by de Sica, who never takes the film too seriously and one might even feel entitled to compare it to classic Hollywood battles of the sexes romantic comedies, although I’m not sure it’s an avenue worth pursuing. ‘Marriage: Italian Style’ is all about surface and doesn’t hold up to much scrutiny.

‘Marriage: Italian Style’ is released on DVD on 8 June on Mr Bongo films.

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