CINEMA: Summer Lovin’

five_hundred_days_of_summer_1.jpg(500) DAYS OF SUMMER (2009, directed by Marc Webb,  95 minutes, U.S.)

ORPHAN (2009, directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, 123 minutes, U.S.)

BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC

Marc Webb’s debut feature (500) Days of Summer is a breezy pop song of a movie.  Not a transcendent pop song though; certainly not “There’s A Light That Never Goes Out,” the morbid and infatuated Smiths’ tune that our romantic couple first bond over when the flirty Summer overhears it on Tom’s iPod.  No, the pop tune this slightly clever, mildly amusing romantic comedy more closely resembles is the one Tom turns onto a mid-film production number, Hall and Oates’  “You Make My Dreams Come True.” Like that 80’s hit, (500) Days of Summer is attractive, disposable and not too deep. 

(500) Days of Summer is being heavily promoted in hopes of it turning into a indie breakout hit like Juno or Little Miss Sunshine. Like those films, Summer shares a tendency to downplay the sorrow inherent in its premise.  Shot in L.A., the film takes place during the year-and-a-half of romance experienced by the frustrated greeting card writer Tom and the new employee Summer.  The slightly clever part comes from thecattywampus way the story is told, with the break-up at the beginning of the film and the rest of the running time clicking backward and forward through his memories as Tom tries to figure why the love montage couldn’t last forever.

It all goes down fairly easily, proceeding much more smoothly than the twenty-something romances I remember, although some of the film’s small, painful moments are guaranteed to evoke some unfortunate memory from the more seasoned lovers in the audience.  The squinty Joseph Gordon-Levitt does fine in the everyman role, but at the film’s center is the object of his adoration and ours too, the lovely Ms. Zooey Deschanel.  Like starlets in the early days of Hollywood, Deschanel cranks out a handful of performances each year, each solidifying a certain goofy and unpretentious persona, a catalog of soulful young ladies who can make their eyes radiate adoration in just such a way as  to make a significant portion of the audience melt in their seats.  Any future clip collections of Ms. Deschanel’s youthful charm will need to add a few choice moments from her work here.

When a film is working this hard to please, feeding you an endless stream of sweet indie rock tunes, karaoke-mangled oldies and assorted pop culture winks (Hi Han Solo!) is it fair to think about what is missing?  It seems the same blankness that allows you to imagine yourself in Tom’s lovelorn shoes is the same quality that makes him a little flat; maybe Tom seems like you because he hardly holds enough distinguishing characteristics to be himself.  And it is worse still for poor Summer, a woman with no friends, no interests of her own and no career goals.  If Tom can’t figure out Summer it is hard to blame him; screenwriters Scott Neustadter & Mark Weber seem like they have hardly figured her out either.  (500) Days of Summer claims that it loves everything about her and yet it seems like it hardly knows her at all.

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Adoption groups are up in arms this week over the new horror thriller Orphan, which supposes what would happen if that nice 10-year-old orphan_1.jpgyou adopted from Russian was actually a brilliant-but-murderous sociopath.  Don’t worry all you little parentless tots of the former Soviet block, this film can barely elicit a startled jump, I shant think it will blunt the pathos of your sad orphan eyes.

Usually the poor folks that bring the wrath of crazed killers upon their home are guilty of some karmic sin.  Here they explain that Kate (the long-faced Vera Farmiga) had once passed out drunk while her daughter nearly drowned and her husband (Peter Sarsgaard) once had an affair a full 10 years before.  Minor offenses?  Too bad!  That mealy-mouthed self-depreciating little Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman ) is going to beat up their kids, kill visiting nuns and in its most audacious moments, get “inappropriate” with her new Daddy.  The nuance of trained indie actors like Farmiga and Sarsgaard do little to hide that this is just a dressed up Lifetime TV movie where families who veer too far off The Cleaver’s path are in for the smackdown of their lives. 

With its weathered wood-y production design, director Jaume Collet-Serra hints that he is moving upscale since his torturous House of Wax.  Seeking a more stately tone, he commences to stretch what should be a 90-minute goof fest into two hours-plus of quickly-spotted/leisurely-arriving scares and intelligence insulting final twists.  A little Bad Seed, a little Good Son with a little Chuckie the killer doll thrown in, Orphan is too polite to go grisly and too silly to mine much psychological friction.  However, it is perfect entertainment for folks who are not adverse to seeing pre-teen kids threatened and killed.  Who is that audience exactly?  Perhaps overworked elementary school teachers?  

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