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The latest in a series of dispatches by Max Sparber from this years Mpls/St. Paul International Film Festival (April 16-30). Read on for his take on a couple of love stories he saw opening weekend: "500 Days of Summer" and "Just Another Love Story."
By Max Sparber
April 21, 2009

Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel in Fox Searchlight Pictures' [i]500 Days of Summer[/i]. (Photo: Chuck Zlotnick)

THE THEME FOR THIS YEAR'S MSPIFF IS CHAOS, AS IT ALWAYS IS. At a movie on Friday, I overheard this conversation:

"Movie's supposed to have started."

"They're always late. No organization."

"It wasn't so bad last year."

"You should have been here when they were at the Bell Auditorium. Oh! Movies would start hours late!"

If you went to St. Anthony Main last Friday, you don't need me to tell you that the lobby was filled with people milling about in confusion. There seemed to be three lines, none of which were clearly marked; patrons wandered aimlessly from one line to the next, not sure where they were supposed to stand, or even where a line began and ended.

I saw two movies this weekend (although I have one or two lined up for nearly every night this week). I went to the opening night's movie, 500 Days of Summer, which was scheduled to start at 7 pm, but actually appeared onscreen at closer to 8 pm. I saw Just Another Love Story at St. Anthony Main on Friday, where I overheard the complainers above; that movie kept a little closer to schedule, and began about 20 minutes late.

There's not much to say about this state of affairs, except that this is just how MSPIFF does things, and how it has done things for 27 years -- sometimes a little better, sometimes a little worse. If my memory serves me correctly, things usually calm down later in the week; and by the second weekend movies tend to actually begin close to their stated start-times. Later in the festival, lines also run a little smoother.

So, take a tip from longtime patrons and be ready for some unnecessary confusion and delay. It's wise to keep your schedule loose and flexible so you can roll with it, lest whatever pleasure you get from MSPIFF's lineup of films be mitigated by frustration with what sometimes seems like willful incompetence on the part of the festival's organizers.

FILM NOTES: 500 Days of Summer and Just Another Love Story 

Both films I saw opening weekend were riffs on classic cinematic love stories. Both movies presented themselves as independent-minded alternatives to hackneyed Hollywood romances, but only one actually lived up to it.

I'm not sure why MSPIFF decided to open with Marc Webb's 500 Days of Summer. It is an updated retread of those dreary 1960s romances: a square meets a hippie chick, has his life changed by her, and then she either a) dumps him because she is dedicated to free love, man, or b) she dies. Either way, the square's life is invariably changed for the better because of his contact with this marvelous creature; and he matures into a morer nuanced manhood because of the tragedy she brought with her.

The romance narrative arc of 500 Days may not be quite as overused as the even more popular, related storyline -- boy meets, loses, and wins back girl -- perennially loved by mainstream Hollywood. But it's still well-worn enough to be cliché, and not a very interesting one.

The iteration of the story in 500 Days of Summer has little new to offer, but for the filmmakers' decision to present the storyline out of order. But even this novelty generally feels more like a gimmick than a decision dictated by the needs of the narrative. The humor in the film tends to float somewhere around the level you might expect from a sitcom.

The screenwriters have made a mistake in creating characters that, post-Juno, I think we're going to see a lot more of: In place of characters, they give us quirks, caricatures fleshed out with offbeat (but nonetheless decidedly mainstream) pop culture discussions. Our heroes in 500 Days meet cute over a shared love of '90s-era college radio; the female lead demonstrates her independence of thought by declaring Ringo Starr to be her favorite Beatle.

Diablo Cody did this kind of thing with a fair amount of aplomb, but even in the smart writing behind Juno, this technique for character development is a bit of a cheat. And there is no such aplomb in the 500 Days script by Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber so, in this film, it's nothing but cheat.

Actually, the film is most interesting when you consider it as a look into how actors niche-market themselves. The star, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, after a decade on the sitcom 3rd Rock from the Sun, is remaking himself as the go-to guy for pained leads in alternative films. He's a good actor -- better than is demanded here -- and he tries to infuse his character with a puppy dog awkwardness and a wounded soulfulness for 500 Days. But, honestly, this film needed to go light, rather than dark. I suspect Gordon-Levitt's rendering of the character stemmed from an admirable decision to try to steer clear of the mugginess that 3rd Rock required; but this film, with its network-friendly punch-lines, would only have been helped by sitcom line readings.

Zooey Deschanel plays Gordon-Levitt's love interest. Deschanel obviously realized some time ago that she'd never lack for work if she positioned herself as the sort of sassy coffeeshop barista or record store clerk beloved by geeky-boys-grown-up -- the same kind of young men who populate the ranks of aspiring screenwriters and directors in disproportionate numbers.

Just Another Love Story (Kærlighed på film), on the other hand, is a much darker romance. Actually, it's less a love story than it is a reinvention of noir by Danish director Ole Bornedal. Bornedal was also responsible for the crime film Nightwatch (Nattevagten), a festival favorite back in 1994; a few years later he helmed an English language remake of the film starring Ewan McGregor that doesn't seem to have been anybody's favorite anything.

Just Another Love Story is about a crime scene photographer, played by Anders W. Berthelsen with both Jeff Daniels' hair and the comically bewildered facial expressions the actor deployed for Dumb and Dumber.

Our hero witnesses a horrific car crash. Afterward, at the hospital, while checking in on the status of the mysterious woman (Rebecka Hemse) driving the car, he's mistaken by her distraught family for the boyfriend they've never met. When the injured woman wakes, blind and amnesiac, she thinks the same. And our hero, desperate to escape the misery of his own life, plays along, not correcting their error.

The tension resulting from this fundamental deception is, for the most part, played lightly, although Bornedal never shies away from the queasy elements required by the story, especially when the imposter becomes her lover. As it turns out, the woman's actual boyfriend is still alive. He's also quite a piece of work, both psychopathic and suicidal. It all ends rather miserably on a Danish beach, with Berthelsen's character reaping the ugly rewards of his duplicity.  

But Just Another Love Story fearlessly broaches a theme that 500 Days of Summer just hinted at, but which, if explored directly, would have made it a better film -- that sometimes we fall in love with someone who is exactly right for us, but for whom we are exactly wrong.

About the author: Max Sparber is an arts writer and playwright, as well as being the editor of the MnSpeak section of Secrets of the City (http://www.secretsofthecity.com/talk/). Max is an active blogger, and most of his own projects, as well as his arts writing, can be found on his blog at http://www.sparberfans.blogspot.com/.

Related events:

You can catch a second screening of Just Another Romance at St. Anthony Main, Saturday April 25 at 8:15 pm.

CLICK HERE for the full schedule of films at this year's film fest, and tune back in regularly for more of Max's MSPIFF dispatches for mnartists.org.

MN Artists