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Posted: July 29, 2009

Dave on film: Love, sweet and sour

Reviews of "(500) Days of Summer" and "The Ugly Truth"

Dave Taylor

It's summer and romance is in the air. Well, not really, but two romantic comedies opened this last week and they stand in stark contrast: "(500) Days of Summer" is a sweet, poignant and witty film about the mysteries of love while "The Ugly Truth" is a crude, depressing film and an example of how low we've sunk in our search for a cheap laugh.

"(500) Days of Summer"

There are few subjects that are more puzzling than love. What is it? How do you know when you find it? Will it last? Is there really "true love" and is there "the one" person out there who is your perfect match, someone who is your romantic destiny?

That's what "(500) Days of Summer" is about, and it's a truly delightful, funny, heart-warming film.

Summer, in the title, is not a season, but rather an odd, cynical girl (played by Zooey Deschanel) who doesn't believe in relationships and wants to save "the serious stuff" for when she's older. She gets a job at a greeting card company where Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) works as a writer, though he's really a frustrated architect.

Tom looks up and sees Summer over the cubicle walls. That's Day 1. But I'm getting ahead of myself, actually, because it starts with Day 488. The film takes us on a tour of the ups and downs of their relationship, one that lasts 500 days, and it's not linear. We bounce around from highlights to periods when they're not talking to each other. There are misunderstandings that leave Tom so depressed he's unable to get out of bed, as well as a wonderful scene where the two of them run through an Ikea store pretending they're setting up their suburban love nest and another brilliant scene in which Tom walks to work after Summer spends the night at his apartment for the first time.

As different moments in the relationship are portrayed, on-screen titles show "Day 32" or "Day 317" and so on. I was afraid it would be hard to keep track given how much it bounces back and forth, but in fact it's a terrific narrative device and makes the film far more poignant and engaging.

Actually, as the narrator explains early on "This is a movie about boy meets girl, but it's not a love story." It is, however, a delightful film.

Tom is an optimist who has been waiting his whole life for his soul mate, while Summer has had a number of different relationships -- wittily explained on screen -- and has moved to Los Angeles because she was bored with her life.
Does she have friends? We never really learn much about her and what makes her tick, but this is Tom's story and when he's not with Summer, he's hanging out with his two buddies McKenzie (Geoffrey Arend) and Paul (Matthew Gray Gubler). They're both funny, warm and caring friends to Tom and are the kind of guys every man would like to have as buddies.

The real standout in the film, however, was Tom's wise-beyond-her-years little sister Rachel (Chloe Moretz, who is 12). The narrator in the film has many of the most wry observations about the progression of the relationship between Tom and Summer, but it's Rachel who gives Tom the insight into women and relationship dynamics and has some of the funniest lines.

What I really like about "(500) Days of Summer" is that everyone in this movie is comfortable, believable and seems just like the kind of people you probably already have in your life. Tom perpetually has sweater-vests on and wears a tie to work, but leaves it loose and doesn't button his collar up. His shirt is more often untucked than tucked in, but he doesn't look a slob, just a relaxed guy. Summer wears funky clothes, often in black, but it's not a statement, it's just the kind of wardrobe that helps her stay comfortable and not worry about her looks.

One of the most telling moments in the film is when Tom's pal Paul is describing his ideal woman, and then says about his long-time girlfriend Robin: "Actually, Robin's better than the girl of my dreams. She's real."

And that's what "(500) Days of Summer" is too: It's a very real film about love and relationships, warm, funny and delightful, tentative, nerve-wracking and depressing. First-time director Marc Webb has put together one of the sweetest films of the year.

"The Ugly Truth"

Here's a funny setup for a movie: Take a beautiful control-freak of a woman and make her producer of a morning show at a small TV station. Then take a scroungy but devilishly handsome guy and have him be the crude-talking cynical relationship expert who says it like he sees it, good or bad. Now, let's make this funny by having her produce his show, even as she finds him a terribly crude and unsophisticated.

It could be a funny film.

Unfortunately, while that describes the basic storyline of Robert Luketic's "The Ugly Truth," it isn't a wry, sweet romantic comedy at all, but instead an exercise in crude language and relationship shock therapy barely held together by a script with so many logic and continuity gaffes that it makes you wonder if they accidentally used an early draft.

Katherine Heigl plays Abby, the producer of the KSXP 2 Sacramento morning show. She's not a pleasant person but rather a broadly painted caricature of a controlling woman, so uptight that when she goes on a blind date, she admits to the guy that her assistant has already run a background check on him and brings "talking points" in case they have nothing to say.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the story, Gerard Butler plays Mike, a crude boor of a guy who, again, is (surprise) hiding some disastrous relationships from his past that have broken his heart and left him a vocal cynic and the voice of "The Ugly Truth," the name of his zero-budget TV call-in show in the wasteland of public access cable. Tone down his performance, let him have some lines that suggest he's not an idiot, just a cynic, and I could have enjoyed his role.

But as it is "The Ugly Truth" is just an ugly movie that tries to offend with language and crude observations about relationships in a way that just didn't work for me.

There were elements that could have been interesting in a smarter script. For example, Abby had a cat named D'Artagnan, which I found amusing: D'Artagnan is one of the Three Musketeers, so why have a cat with that name unless Abby sees herself as "fighting for innocence and purity?" That wasn't developed at all.

In another scene reminiscent of the brilliant deli scene in "When Harry Met Sally," Abby finds herself being sexually stimulated while attending a business dinner, but it ends up flat, with pedestrian puns and odd and unbelievable reactions by the other diners. In "When Harry Met Sally," everyone in the audience laughs with the "I'll have what she's having" line.

In "The Ugly Truth" the audience just gaped at the screen in disbelief.

Another thing that struck me forcibly as the film progressed was just how excruciatingly bad the dialogue was. Heigl must have had nightmares trying to memorize these incredibly dry lines that were supposed to make her seem like a brainiac, but the lines weren't used consistently throughout the film, just when she was at the TV studio (more than one dialogue writer?) so it just seemed jarring and lame. At other times, the repartee between her and Butler was quite witty and delightful, but where was the consistency?

Okay, so I'm a guy who usually prefers a good action film to a romantic comedy anyway, but when I compare "The Ugly Truth" with the other romantic comedy being released this weekend, "(500) Days of Summer," it's quite a contrast. 500 Days is warm, sweet and engaging, with quirky but likable characters. Ugly is overrun with caricatures, crude language and inane setups, by contrast, and is a far inferior movie.

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Dave Taylor has been watching movies for as long as he can remember. Along the way he’s become a nationally recognized expert on technology, an accomplished writer, and award-winning public speaker and blogger. You can find his film writing at  www.DaveOnFilm.com and follow his film commentary on Twitter at @FilmBuzz or just email him at taylor@intuitive.com.

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