Summer Lovin'; Apatow's reach exceeds his grasp 

STARS Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Zooey Deschanel

It's too soon to tell whether (500) Days of Summer will emerge as an Annie Hall or The Graduate for this generation -- or at least supplant Garden State insofar as being the movie of choice for lovelorn folks trying to make some sense out of their lives. My feeling is that it won't pull it off, given its platform distribution and indie roots (maybe the studio should have cast Shia LaBeouf and Megan Fox to star and Michael Bay to direct?).

But so what? The beauty of this utterly winning picture is that it doesn't live in a generational vacuum: Like the best films of its kind, its tale of young love (and all the accompanying trials and tribulations) will speak to all ages. Besides, it's safe to say that those of us who have actually seen The Graduate (heavily referenced throughout) are in a better position to appreciate its nuances than those whose knowledge of Dustin Hoffman begins and ends with that Meet the Parents sequel.

Written by the team of Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (whose only other credit is, uh, The Pink Panther 2) and directed by Marc Webb in his feature-film debut, (500) Days of Summer opens with an unfortunate author's note that not only seems too harsh under the circumstances but also spells out exactly where the entire film is heading. Get past that, however, and only good times lay ahead.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Tom Hansen, a sweet kid who works for a greeting card company even though his real dream has always been to become an architect. Into the workplace walks new employee Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel), and Tom is immediately smitten. Tom, a romantic at heart, has always hoped to be swept off his feet by the overpowering force of true love, and while he comes to truly care for Summer, he also clearly loves the idea of being in love with another person. Summer, however, isn't on the same page: More cynical in nature, she doesn't particularly subscribe to the notion of true love and sees Tom as a "friend with benefits." Tom does his best to keep their union afloat, but he obviously has his work cut out for him.

Rather than spill the story in chronological order, Webb and team have elected to jump back and forth to various points in the relationship, showing the pair happy one minute and gloomy the next. In the wrong hands, such a decision might have turned out unwieldly or awkward, but here the scenes flow smoothly, making sense not only narratively (on-screen markers always alert us to the day being shown) but also emotionally, allowing us to fully understand and appreciate how earlier incidents might affect the characters' mindsets during later ones.

Webb's imagination also extends to the film's look. Romantic comedies aren't exactly known for their visual wit, but this one has fun playing around with movie conventions, particularly in a scene in which Tom imagines himself as the protagonist in various black-and-white foreign flicks. There's also a brilliant cameo of sorts by a Star Wars character, the result being the funniest moment in any film released thus far in 2009.

Ultimately, though, none of this would work without the proper actors essaying the roles of Tom and Summer. Webb struck gold by casting Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel, two adorable talents whose open faces and inviting eyes seem to allow audiences access to their very psyches. Because of them, we find ourselves completely invested in Tom and Summer, and their love story becomes our love story, warts and all.

STARS Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen

Most genre filmmakers reach that point in their careers when they elect to turn their backs -- if only momentarily -- on the exciting bread-and-butter flicks that made their names and attempt to create a film full of "purpose" and "meaning" (and, if they're lucky, will fall squarely in the sights of gullible Academy members). Tim Burton tried this with the disappointing Big Fish while David Fincher went this route with the stillborn drama The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. And now here's Judd Apatow giving it a shot -- sort of -- with Funny People.

But here's the thing: Despite producing seemingly every other comedy coming out of Hollywood these days (from charmers like Forgetting Sarah Marshall to bombs like Year One), Apatow has only served as director on two pictures before this one, so it seems a tad early for him to already be rolling the dice on such a hefty project. And indeed, this new release showcases his lack of ability in mounting such a production. Here's a movie that's meant to make audiences laugh, cry and think -- from the evidence here, I suppose it's no surprise that Apatow's favorite picture is the excellent, Oscar-winning Terms of Endearment. But the reality is that the end result isn't especially sorrowful or thoughtful. And aside from some scattered chuckles, it also isn't very funny.

That's a shock, considering that Apatow's previous works, Knocked Up and especially The 40-Year-Old Virgin, contained plenty of laugh-out-loud moments. Yet what distinguished them from most of the doltish fanboy comedies hitting theaters these days (The Hangover, for instance) is that Apatow made sure to include genuine characters rather than stock types in his stories and made us care enough about them to allow the movies to resonate beyond their nyuk content. Virgin gave us fully rounded people up and down the line, and even the slightly overrated Knocked Up included enough of an emotional toehold to suck us in. Funny People, by comparison, never properly merges all of its disparate elements into an organic whole, resulting in viewer whiplash as it repeatedly starts and sputters.

Adam Sandler is cast as George Simmons, a hugely successful Hollywood star whose comedies suck but nevertheless make wads of cash (the obvious in-joke is that Simmons' movies, like Merman and My Best Friend Is a Robot, look no worse than Sandler films like Little Nicky and Big Daddy). George has just been diagnosed with a rare -- and potentially fatal -- strain of leukemia, and this naturally sours his entire disposition. After the obligatory bouts of self-pity, he tries to move ahead, first by hiring rising comic Ira Wright (Seth Rogen) to write material for him and then by trying to rekindle a romance with Laura (Leslie Mann, Apatow's real-life wife), an ex-fiancee now married to an Australian businessman (Eric Bana) and blessed with two small girls (played by Apatow and Mann's daughters, Maude and Iris).

I rarely complain about the length of movies -- indeed, a longer run time often results in a more complex and meaningful cinematic experience -- but it's inexcusable that Funny People clocks in at 145 minutes. "Important" films, of course, rarely run less than two hours (just check out the traditional Best Picture Oscar nominees for evidence), but I'm not sure how distinguished a film's pedigree can be when the grueling length is the result of several dozen extraneous "dick" jokes that could easily have been removed. Funny People contains the crudeness we've come to expect from Apatow, but there isn't anything here remotely as inspired as the raunchy but riotous bits in The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up. Instead, the vulgarity frequently pops up during the standup bits performed by George and Ira, threadbare material that only serves to make us miss Richard Pryor all that much more.

Funny People is so overstuffed with incidental material -- Ira's thorny relationship with his two more successful roommates (Jonah Hill and Jason Schwartzman), his tentative wooing of a deadpan neighbor (Aubrey Plaza), George's schmoozing with countless celebrities playing themselves (Sarah Silverman, Paul Reiser, Eminem, etc.) -- that the George-Laura storyline doesn't even materialize until the film's second hour. This portion is stronger simply because it seems more focused, and because it acknowledges the difficulties in reconciling the world of the rich and famous with the world in which the rest of us live.

Sandler's performance isn't anything special -- I much preferred his previous attempts at branching out, in pieces like Punch-Drunk Love and Spanglish -- but it's nice to see him add an edgy layer to his usual man-child persona: There's no getting around the fact that George Simmons is a prick, and that prevents his relationship with Ira from lapsing into the usual "buddy comedy" schtick.

Still, the name of the movie is Funny People, and Sandler and Rogen are known for being funny people, so what does it say that Bana, generally a dour stick-in-the-mud in such titles as Hulk and Munich, ends up delivering the funniest performance as Laura's anxious husband?

Apatow clearly meant to further his reputation with this ambitious effort, but the end result, sad to say, is no laughing matter.


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