Boys In Love: I Love You Beth Cooper, (500) Days of Summer, and Adventureland

September 23, 2009

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Rom-coms that centre around adult women tend to be about unbelievably gorgeous career woman who just haven’t found the right man, and that right man is almost always a well-built, clever, and extremely handsome man.  He probably lacks a heart-on-his-sleeve sensitive side, but the woman need only scratch beyond the bickering and the brusque exterior to find it.  Perhaps this is true of teen movies that centre around girls as well.  After all, Molly Ringwald ends up with Jake and Blane, not the Geek or Duckie.  In whatever circumstance (yes, Ringwald was the outsider in both those films), you rarely see a film in the genre where the athlete is the star.  Oh, there are exceptions, but even in She’s All That, it’s Rachel Leigh Cook that goes on a journey, not Freddie Prinze Jr.  So perhaps the makeshift rule that should be completely disregarded after reading is that if a film is targeted at women, the guy can be hunky and awesome, but targeted at men, the guy will often be an awkward outsider, maybe even a loser (the exception here is Say Anything, in which Lloyd Dobler is much-beloved, an athlete, but still sensitive and culturally savvy enough to be considered outside the ‘conformist mainstream’, if that’s what it is).  I suspect, to go further and narrower, this happens a lot in films about teens/young adults because the (typically) male director was himself a sensitive, artistic sort, and their own nostalgia might be wrapped up in the story enough to the point that they identify with the underdog protagonist.  The boys in these stories, through disconnection with the mainstream popular kids and through a lack of experience with the opposite sex, have a tendency to construct idealized notions of women, and in many cases, a particular one.  The three films herein discussed all deal with boys who do just that to varying degrees of success.

watch-I-Love-You-Beth-Cooper-Movie-Trailer1‘Success’ might have been a strong word, considering the first of the films, Chris Columbus’ abomination I Love You, Beth Cooper, certainly a candidate for worst film of the year.  The only positive I can draw from it is that it reaffirms my ability to feel sympathy, sat as I did squirming in my seat and looking away, feeling thoroughly embarrassed for everyone who had a hand in making it.  It’s a dead film, with scene after scene just lying there on the screen doing nothing despite trying to do everything.

Denis Cooverman (Paul Rust) is a high school senior and class valedictorian who, during his graduation day speech, proclaims his love for the head cheerleader Beth Cooper (Hayden Panettiere), whom he’s never actually spoken to, and then proceeds to encourage everyone to be honest with one another by pointing out the perceived secrets of several members of the audience.  Included here are his best friend Jack (Rick Munsch), whom he believes to be gay, and Kevin (Shawn Roberts), Beth’s graduated boyfriend who is now in the military.  After the ceremony, he invites Beth to a party at his, gets assaulted by her boyfriend Kevin, and the ball starts rolling on a long night of ‘self-discovery’, a term I use loosely because I’m not convinced these characters have a self to discover, and if they did, they might just want to leave it alone.

To even attempt to discuss everything wrong with this film would require a shot by shot viewing followed by a tedious thesis on each and every scene to point out exactly how terrible it all is, so we’re going to have to boil it down to a few major flaws.  First off is the tone, which is wildly erratic.  It veers from shallow, soppy sentimentality to ludicrously over-the-top slapstick to gross humiliation throughout, oftentimes hitting all notes in a single scene.  For instance, Beth, her two friends, Denis and Rich are all riding in a car.  Beth notices Denis’s shirt smells bad, so he takes it off (he’s already lost his trousers by this point) and holds it out the window to try.  It slips out of her hands and they turn around to get it.  Story-wise, this comes virtually out of nowhere, and is indicative of the extraordinarily weak gag set-ups that run throughout.  He gets out, but he’s only in his underwear, which happens to be his lucky (and juvenile) Spider-man pair, and everyone points and laughs.  Beth gets out and walks with him, leading to an awkwardly false heart-to-heart about her life that doesn’t hit a single believable or sympathetic note.  They find the shirt, only to be confronted with a raccoon that seems sweet but SURPRISE, it’s not as cute as they think and its little CGI face snarls and they run away scared.  There is nothing about this that is funny, nothing about this that is unexpected, and nothing about this that is remotely moving.  It’s just dead, and its predictability only adds to the stench of rotting celluloid flesh.  This is the kind of film that draws attention to the gags, even dropping in pointless flashbacks that are clearly meant to be funny and yet never provide any comedy.  Not every gag will work in every film, but it’s very painful to sit through something so obvious fall flat on its face again and again and again.

Secondly, there are the supporting characters, who are treated as walking clichés, i.e. the ‘ditzy but slutty’ friend, the other friend who is a bit more intentional but still played as ‘slutty’ for the jokes, the one-note villain in the form of Kevin, who can hurl a microwave across a room and into a wall with ease due to the tossed off explanation that he’s on some combination of cocaine and steroids, and who is flanked by two well-choreographed army buddies who can leap off a roof with the precision of synchronized divers.  The main problem is Rich, a possibly rich character searching for a better understanding of his own sexuality, here turned into an extremely annoying nerd who, when they can’t think of anything better do, the writer and director get chased by a group of angry cattle that disappear as soon as they arrive (affording them a dung gag, of course).  He serves up every gay stereotype possible (limp wrists, love of theatre and art) before finally realizing what everyone else knew, oh wait, I mean ending up in a threesome with Beth’s two friends because HAW, we can get a premature ejaculation joke out of it.

Finally, there’s Denis himself.  Credit to the filmmakers for casting a genuinely unattractive (or at least not handsome) lead, but take away said credit for creating a character so unsympathetic and annoying that you actually think the bullies might have been on to something.  One can imagine an outtake where a school ruffian speaks to his friends that giving Denis a wedgie is for his own good, as he’s so completely clueless when it comes to social interaction that you’d think he was mentally disabled.  This is in part because of the slapstick violence he’s made to endure, but the performance and the writing share most of the blame.  When he and Rich are on screen, you just want them to go away, and when they’re not on screen, you’re wishing that everyone else would go away as well.  He loves Beth Cooper even though he’s never spoken to her, and he’s built up an idealistic image of her based on her looks alone.  He utters the phrase, ‘You’re not Beth Cooper’ at one point in the film, thus signaling the shattering of his illusion, and in reality should have led to Beth Cooper yelling at him for being such a dick as to be disappointed that she’s not the one-dimensional creature his stalker brain cooked up.  His realisation comes because she kisses a convenient store clerk to buy beer, an act so slutty and self-degrading to him that he’s lost all faith in what he believed in.  This is somehow much, much worse than going out with a homicidal maniac strung out on cocaine and steroids, a fact that really should have clued him in that his dreams may not reflect reality.  Of course she turns out to have more depths than his idiot mind could have originally conceived, but nothing beyond your standard Prom Queen Problems stuff (nervous about future, etc…).

I Love You, Beth Cooper trudges on from stupid set piece to stupid set piece, occasionally stopping for an uninvolving heart-to-heart that only a moron would find moving.  One imagines Chris Columbus wanting to emulate the angsty but amusing teen dramas of the past, whilst surfing through the recent hits to see what kind of comedy sells.  It’s soulless filmmaking at its most depressing, and the viewing experience is nothing less than agonizing.  If anything positive can come out of this, it might work as an educational tool.  I suggest parents screen this for their adolescent children in preparation for the rocky, hormonal, and terrifying high school years.  ‘The coming four years will be rough’, they’ll say, ‘but it isn’t nearly as painful as watching this.’

The high school nerd in love with the unattainable head cheerleader formula doesn’t work once the outsider hits college and beyond.  The fantasy fulfillment girl most often on 500-days-of-summer-review-3screen for the outsider boy these days is the Manic Pixies Girl, who is quirky, beautiful, and available just for you.  She’s artistic, independent, and she’ll use your charm and sensibility to set you on the path to happiness.  Recent examples of this phenomena can be seen in Garden State, Elizabethtown, and The Yes Man, just to name a few.  The best and possibly only good example can be seen in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a film that deconstructs the type to reveal how that free-spirited nature has a cruel edge for the introspective, low self-esteem man-child.  Marc Webb’s (500) Days of Summer does not seek to fulfill any fantasy with its own version of the Manic Pixie Girl, nor does it wish to deconstruct her persona.  Instead, it rips apart the boy who idealizes her, and it does so to great effect.

Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, again proving his inestimable worth to counteract Zach Braff) is such a boy, which the narrator helpfully tells us had his view of the world shaped by ‘exposure to sad British pop music and a total misreading of the movie The Graduate’.  He is, in effect, the ultimate post-modern indie kid.  I imagine him retreating into pop culture at an early age to escape reality, and then staying there hoping the dizzying emotional highs and lows would materialize in the real world, because why else would they write these songs and make these movies?  He’s a romantic idealist, and the film is about how his fantasy is chipped away and ultimately stamped on by his experiences with a girl named Summer (Zooey Deschanel, perhaps the best casting choice of the year if not for her actual performance than for the meta-commentary on her own place in pop culture).

Tom works for a greeting cards company, where Summer starts as a secretary.  The timeline jumps around, moving between the post-break-up depression to the early days of the relationship and back again.  There are so many keenly observed scenes, especially in the early crush phase, that to juxtapose them with the depressed Tom gives us a better and more fluid understanding of just who he is and how he thinks and feels to more than justify what would often be merely a gimmick to keep us interested.  He’s a narrow-minded fool, you see, and watching his experience in chronological order wouldn’t give us the understanding of just how much of one he is otherwise.  He fancies her the moment he sees her, and the scene in the elevator where she talks to him about the Smiths (so cringe-inducing in the trailer for its tweeness) causes him to fall in love and us to understand everything about him.  He’s a Smiths fan and she’s hitting all the right notes for one, and even though he barely knows her, every subsequent interaction until that first kiss is a massive drama.  He sees the world through the pop culture he’s absorbed, and the film deals with this both through his imagination (the Hall & Oates musical number) and, even more impressively, through his reality.  The latter can be summed up in the scene where he’s watching her from across the office get up and walk across the room.  As she gets up, he turns to his computer and plays ‘Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want’ on iTunes as she’s walking by.  In the absence of a soundtrack for the scene, he creates one on his own to add the significance to the moment a film might do (no coincidence that song was featured in Pretty in Pink).  This doesn’t exactly follow with how the rest of the film proceeds, as it often plays with the form using animation and split-screen to understand his thinking, and he does explain it as a chance for her to make a move (being as he’s unsurprisingly the kind of guy who can’t do anything about it on his own, nor does he want to), but it perfectly encapsulates him anyway.

Summer is, for her part, not terribly complex, but that’s only because this whole relationship is viewed from his perspective.  He sees her idiosyncrasies as cute and adorable until she breaks up with him, where those same idiosyncrasies are derided as annoying.  He remembers the movie-like moments of romance:  drawing on her arm, running through IKEA, etc…  In his mind, she’s an ideal, and when she dumps him, he’s shattered.  He calls her a slut and the passive misogyny of this character type comes out as he reverts to outdated gender-specific slander because he can’t cope that his vision of a one-dimensional woman doesn’t fit with the actual person.  Re-evaluating a past relationship as good at one point and bad at another is nothing new, and recently you can see this in Forgetting Sarah Marshall and, in general, the themes covered here are done in High Fidelity as well.  But in those films I don’t think we get nearly the level of character dissection as we do here.  This does leave the problem that we’re basically deconstructing a fairly unlikable character, but because he is depicted in such an (horrifyingly, at times) identifiable way, there’s great merit to the endeavour.  There’s a great split-screen sequence where we get his hopes and the reality when he attends a party she’s hosting in which he hopes for a meaningful hug and hours of conversation but gets what any ex-flame would:   solitary standing on the edges of party where he’s just a guest like any other; the former lover that is seen as nothing more than a friend.

Not everything works, unfortunately, as his friends are pretty one-dimensional comedy characters, and it does wheel out the younger sister who is infinitely wiser trope.  Also, the ‘art film’ sequence betrays the intelligence shown elsewhere by reverting to the standard cliché that one imagines Tom would know better than to dream up.  It also loses its way a bit towards the latter part of the film, mostly in the resolution of the Summer character which struck me as too clean.    Though some might complain about the ending, I think it gives a nod to the already mentioned Graduate in its ambiguity and the sense that Tom has learned absolutely nothing.  One suspects he will always prefer the dream that will never work to the reality that might.

In the end, (500) Days of Summer is a sharply observed character piece.  It has been promoted to raise the interest of romantic indie kids, and it boasts a soundtrack that suits the fanbase perfectly.  It’s got emotional but pretty indie classics from the Smiths, new ‘favourites’ from Feist and Regina Spektor, and even the reappropriation of 80’s cheese in Hall and Oates.  It understands its audience all too well, and it feels no compunction in ripping the shreds out of them, even if it admits to being one of them itself

vlcsnap-373977It probably says a lot about me that I just celebrated a movie that ripped apart its hopelessly romantic lead and I am now going to praise exactly the kind of film Tom would love.  Greg Mottola’s Adventureland is sweet, awkward, romantic, and nostalgic, exactly how Tom would have wanted it, and it is also one of the best films of the year.

The plot is simple.  James (Jesse Eisenberg) has just graduated university, and he’s meant to go on a European vacation before starting his post-graduate studies at Columbia.  His father gets demoted and suddenly the money he was relying on dries up, so he moves back to Pennsylvania and is forced to get a summer job at the low-rent amusement park Adventureland, where he’s relegated to operating the crooked games where people hope to win cheap stuffed animals.  As his dream plans for his future evaporate before his eyes, he meets Em (Kristen Stewart) and falls for her, though unbeknownst to him she’s having affair the older and married Mike Connell (Ryan Reynolds).  As I said, pretty simple, and you can imagine he grows up a lot during the course of the summer.

These types of films are a subjective experience more so than most.  We can hopefully all watch certain movies and gain a better understanding of the larger human experience, but in some cases one comes along that seems to tailor made to a particular type of person that it defies wholly objective analysis.  (500) Days of Summer hits closer to home for me than it might others, and in that same way, Adventureland seems to have been tailor-made for me.  It opens with a Replacements song, huge significance is placed on the Velvet Underground’s ‘Pale Blue Eyes’, and when James first gets into Em’s car, she’s listening to Husker Du, and if that isn’t shorthand for awesomeness for me, than I don’t know what is.  However, I’ll try to explain why, objectively, this film is still very good even if you don’t have a penchant for classic indie rock.

Just like Summer, it is a beautifully observed film.  The plot is there, but it is more about a series of significant moments (yes, the same kind Tom hoped would be reproduced).  The awkward, outsider boy isn’t totally hapless or deluded.  He gets on well with people, and his relationship with Em doesn’t stem from the needs of the story, but rather it makes sense because he’s actually a pretty interesting guy.  He’s no social maverick, but he’s got enough inside him to let people know he’s worth talking to, and we can see why girls like him, even if he doesn’t.  James goes through a realistic growth, and we’re with him every step of the way because we can both identify and sympathise with what he’s going through.  He’s a nice, likeable guy, unlike Denis in Beth Cooper and he’s not nearly as narcissistic as Summer’s Tom.  When he hits it off with the park hottie, Lisa P (Margarita Levieva), we know it isn’t just a plot device.  He’s a decent guy and she’s a decent girl and we understand why they might get on.  Likewise, Em is not just a Manic Pixie Girl, rather she’s a seemingly cool, laid-back girl that is trying to sort through her own rebellion against her parents and resultant feelings of inadequacy.  She does things she knows she shouldn’t, but we understand why.

The acting is super all around.  Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig are dependably funny as the couple that manages the park.  Ryan Reynolds plays Mike not as a lecherous creep like you might expect, but as a pathetic older man who never made it the way he wanted to and is secretly desperate to hold onto his youth.  Martin Starr as employee and friend Joel deserves special props for slowly revealing his contempt and depression.  He seems like a goofy sidekick, but he’s aware of his affectations and is deeply frustrated that, despite his intelligence, he can’t achieve what he knows he’s capable of.  There is a noteworthy scene, when James tells him about making out with Em, where he tries to play it cool but is visibly upset.  His character makes sense throughout, and when he doles out the advice, it doesn’t feel like he’s serving the needs of the main guy, but instead is genuinely annoyed enough to tell James what he needs to hear.  Jesse Eisenberg has had his performance downgraded by people presuming the role was meant for Michael Cera, but I think no matter what the original casting choice may or may not have been, he makes it his own. He isn’t playing the typical Cera character.  He infuses James with just the right amount of youthful awkwardness and intelligent self-awareness to make everything believable.  Finally, we get to Kristen Stewart, hardly my favourite actress working these days, but it’s a testament to the film that I really liked her here.  In some ways she’s playing the same drippy, emo chick she specializes in, but there’s an uncertainty and confusion she manages to pull out of that persona that works here better than it does in anything else I’ve seen her in recently.

Adventureland takes place in the 80’s, but much to its credit, it doesn’t go for the Wedding Singer period laughs.  There are instances of 80’s fashion around, but it’s never overbearing.  Indeed, the uniforms the workers are meant to wear seem like the exact type of shirt modern day indie kids might wear (before Urban Outfitters reproduced them en masse, of course).  The film does take place in the 80’s, however, and the nostalgia is present.  It is a very personal film to the director, who based a lot of it on his experiences working in a similar theme park.  None of this detracts from the film, however, because the genuine affection for the period, the characters, and the story shines through in every scene.  It has the intensity at times of how it must have felt for the early 20’s protagonist, but it is depicted with the ease and affection only someone who lived through it can give.  No matter what everyone else thinks, I do love this movie.  There’s a great scene where James, Em, and Joel are sitting around on July 4th, mocking the holiday naturally, when ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’ comes on through the loudspeakers and the fireworks start.  Everything slows down and the characters are swept away by the emotions of the moment, and it is at this point that I realized how smart this film really was.  It understands a basic fact about the universe:  that Crowded House song can cut through anything and produce a great moment.

-M

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