Humpday, (500) Days, the Male Gaze

(1) Last night, a friend and I were kvetching about (500) Days of Summer, a movie we were both expecting to be a witty and possibly even profound generational statement. Instead, I found it noteworthily terrible, though in fairness I should have dialed back my expectations. Actually, let me emphasize this point: the movie is definitely entertaining in stretches. It’s nice to see cultural touchstones associated with your cohort immortalized in celluloid. The leads are winning. Now I will unleash my lacerating tirade.

Scott Tobias, who is forced to endure lots of schlocky comedies as a movie critic for The A.V. Club, says it well:

It goes down smoothly, thanks in large part to Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s grounded lead performance and Marc Webb’s slick direction, but it seems like every other scene coughs up a dispiriting cliché.

While puzzling over the movie’s failures, I was thinking about Summer, the “sunny but obscure object of desire.” Obscure is important: the movie, like The Virgin Suicides, isn’t about the women — it’s about the delusions of the men. Was that the problem? I really The Virgin Suicides: my sense is that the creepiness is the point. So that can’t be it. Indeed, my friend noted that there’s another movie that tried to accomplish many of the same things, and it involved a similarly “sunny but obscure” female lead: Annie Hall.

When she mentioned Annie Hall, I slapped my forehead: that was it. Annie Hall was a movie about a problematic and probably doomed relationship; but it was also a movie about ideas, one that was very much in the stream of its time, ranging from the McLuhan references to the looping back and forth through a comically scarring romantic history. The movie thus had some grit. It gave you a sense of the circumstances that led Alvy to Annie, and, to a lesser extent, Annie to Alvy. Also, Annie had an ambition, which made her more substantial without making her any less inaccessible/baffling. Annie Hall is a damn good movie. I think our generation deserves an equally excellent generational statement.

Actually, another friend made a salient observation that might explain why the women I’ve discussed the movie with haven’t liked it:

What it is, really, is the first successful depiction of something that every sensitive male now goes through — the quasi-but-not-really-relationship with the woman who’s 1) love-shy and 2) doesn’t understand why a man has to get so damn attached to her in the course of an experimental quasi-relationship.

I can’t imagine any attractive woman actually liking it, though. Because I’m pretty sure they’ve all pulled this at least once.

That’s not a crazy assessment. (I’ll object, gently, to the “pulled this” line, as I think the male protagonist “pulled this” on himself, but that’s secondary. The movie is a damning indictment of a blustery, self-pitying version of being sensitive, which isn’t to say one shouldn’t sympathize in small doses.) Yet D’s criticisms still stand.

Writer-director Marc Webb was born in 1975, so he has the good fortune of having avoided — narrowly — one of the most harrowing pitfalls of quasi-romance in our time: excessive presentness. In Annie Hall, Annie and Alvy separate for a long stretch. Though Alvy continues to harbor pretty powerful feelings for Annie, he’s not confronted by her ghostly electronic presence at every turn. That kind of distance is valuable, time heals, etc. It’s a truism that this kind of social distance has been obliterated in the age of social graph gluttony. Someone born in 1985 or 1995 will eventually make a film — or some kind of immersive multimedia project specially designed for Purple-Ray-enabled Ultra-Def Smellovisions — that will get this right.

(2) Humpday was excellent. I was going to write something more substantial, but why bother? I’ll say this: it’s an astute portrait of alpha males (sorry, Wolf Guy) gone to seed and the peculiarities of male friendship. The main characters are both imbeciles, but they’re likable imbeciles. And they are believable imbeciles. Excellent performances. It’s funny as heck. Well worth your time.