Double Feature

9 Nov

Indian summer is like a woman.

– The opening line of Peyton Place by Grace Metalious (1956)

Ryan Gosling (l) stars opposite George Clooney (r) in the political thriller The Ides of March.

Two of the hottest and hardest working young actors in all of showbiz right now have to be Zooey Deschanel and Ryan Gosling. Singer-actress Deschanel is enjoying quite a ride: she’s the star of New Girl, a popular Fox sitcom, she enjoyed minor box office success with August’s feature film Our Idiot Brother, her collection of Christmas tunes, recorded as part of her She and Him project with M. Ward, recently received a positive blurb in the pages of Entertainment Weekly, and she took a time-out to sing the national anthem during the World Series (which aired on Fox, but I digress). Meanwhile, how good is Ryan Gosling? He’s so good that bona fide superstar George Clooney felt comfortable enough to step back and play a supporting role while Gosling took center stage in the politically charged Ides of March (which Clooney also directed). Gosling actually has two much buzzed about films in release this fall: Ides of March and Drive, which captured Best Director honors for Nicolas Wingding Refn at the most recent Cannes film festival. Over the summer, Gosling and his well chiseled abs had women, and no doubt at least a few men, swooning in Crazy Stupid Love, which is now available on home video. Gosling even caused a stir when a homemade video of him breaking up a fight on a busy New York street popped up on the Internet.  As far as I know, Gosling has never confirmed that he is in fact the figure in the video though it doesn’t seem to matter. People believe it is him, and it contributes to the media’s current  fascination with all things Gosling.

Before Deschanel (center) starred in (500) Days of Summer, she appeared in All the Real Girls directed by Richardson’s own David Gordon Green (r). Interestingly, Deschanel’s co-star, Paul Scneider (l) also appears in Lars and the Real Girl with Ryan Gosling.

My fascination with Deschanel actually kicked-in two years ago when she co-starred with Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the titular Summer in 2009’s  (500) Days of Summer.  Oh sure, I’d seen her before in such movies as All the Real Girls (2003), Elf (2003), and Bridge to Terabithia (2007), but to be perfectly frank, I was never sure in some of those earlier films if I was watching Deschanel or Maggie Gyllenhaal, both of whom are second generation Hollywood and seem to specialize in playing women who are often just a little kooky or offbeat. Deschanel, by the way, is the daughter [1]  of famed cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (The Black Stallion, The Right Stuff, The Natural, and Fly Away Home) while Gyllenhaal, besides being the sister of heartthrob Jake, is also the daughter of TV director Stephen Gyllenhaal[2] and Oscar nominated screenwriter Naomi Foner (Running on Empty, 1988), but I digress. The truth is that Deschanel didn’t fully command my attention until the aforementioned (500) Days of Summer.

Besides the three films Gosling (r) has appeared in since mid-summer, he was seen earlier this year opposite Michelle Williams (l) in Blue Valentine, a late 2010 release that did not go wide until early 2011 in order to capitalize on Williams’s Best Actress nomination.

On the other hand, Gosling is not second generation Hollywood, yet he has had an unusual career trajectory.  He actually got his first big break when he was cast as a Mouseketeer in something like the umpteenth revival of Disney’s Mickey Mouse Club, being part of the same cast as Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears, and Christina Aguilerra. Eventually, he graduated to less juvenile fare and earned critical raves in The Believer (2001) as a, yes, Jewish Neo-Nazi, a fictional story reportedly inspired by the suicide of Daniel Burros, a former Klansman who killed himself after it was revealed that he was, indeed, Jewish. The Believer opened many doors for Gosling, and soon he was starring as a murderous high school student opposite Sandra Bullock in Murder By Numbers (2002). Gosling transitioned to traditional leading man–and made a huge impression on moviegoers–in 2004’s WWII era love story, The Notebook, based on the novel by Nicholas Sparks. Two years later, he scored a Best Actor Oscar nomination for playing a freebasing school teacher in the dreary Half Nelson. The following year, he gave an even more Oscar worthy performance in Lars and the Real Girl, but the Academy thought otherwise, and Gosling did not make the final cut.

I saw both Lars and the Real Girl and (500) Days of Summer in their original theatrical engagements. I loved them both, and they were definitely in my mind when I got the idea to start writing a blog. My original intent was to dedicate an entry to Deschanel’s somewhat undervalued performance in  (500) Days of Summer, more or less to be in sync with the whole World Series thing, and then pay tribute to Gosling’s superb work as Lars at a later time, but  after watching The Ides of March and Drive within a week of each other, I decided to jump on the whole Gosling bandwagon sooner rather than later. I had not planned to write about (500) Days of Summer and Lars and the Real Girl in a single entry until I re-watched them back to back and had my eyes opened to their thematic similarities. To wit, Lars and the Real Girl is about a grown man who treats a doll like a woman while (500 )Days of Summer is about a man who treats a grown woman like a doll.

Really real girl: Kelli Garner plays Margo, who pines for Lars from across the office. Garner can now be seen as Kate on the Pan-Am TV series, playing a top flight stewardess with a top secret agenda.

Gosling plays Lars Lindstrom, a shy, awkward young man who lives in his older brother’s garage apartment in a small town somewhere up north where almost every day is a winter wonderland. His brother and pregnant sister-in-law, as well as other community members (such as fellow parishioners), worry about him–not that Lars seems to notice. This troubled young man apparently suffered one too many childhood traumas, and it has left him much more vulnerable than he would like to admit, the result being trust and/or abandonment issues. Of course, Lars lacks many social skills. Not only does he not like to be touched, he still walks around with his baby blanket. On the other hand, he is able to hold down a job, some dull affair in which he sits in a cubicle and stares at a computer screen all day. It is through his Internet-porn obsessed co-worker  (Maxwell McCabe-Lokos) that Lars finds the girl of his dreams, that is, a woman who will never leave him, and, therefore, will never hurt him. Her name is Bianca, a gorgeous lifelike “love” doll.

Make no mistake, Bianca is no mere inflatable sex toy. She is a dark haired beauty with realistic glass eyes, lush lashes, a finely sculpted face, a smooth, touchable skin-like surface, and a “flexible” body. For Lars, it’s love at first sight. He even gives his doll a whole back story to help explain some of her deficiencies. For example, Bianca cannot walk because an accident left her an invalid.That’s why Lars carries her in his arms like a new bride or pushes her in a wheelchair. Furthermore, Bianca is an orphan like Lars, so he feels compelled to dote on her, to pay constant attention to her, and to love her. He takes her with him everywhere: the mall, parties, and even church.

Meanwhile, Tom Hansen, the character played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt in (500) Days of Summer, is similar to Lars with with a few key differences.  Like Lars, Tom has a job that doesn’t show a lot of promise. He actually majored in architecture in college, but he has yet to be offered his dream job, so he toils daily in a cubicle as a greeting card writer. He also has a snarky co-worker. The key difference is that while Lars is so afraid of allowing himself to have feelings for anyone or reaching out for affection, Tom is only too eager, that is desperate, to do so. The narrator explains that Tom’s lifelong obsession to find happiness and completion in the form of one true love “stemmed from early exposure to sad British pop music and a total misreading of the film The Graduate.” Just as Lars falls in love with his Bianca at first sight, Tom is immediately smitten with Summer Finn when he first glances at her across an office meeting room. The problem is that Tom never stops long enough to consider why he believes Summer is the one for him, nor does he ever allow himself to imagine that he might not be the right person for her.

In a brief prologue, the  narrator explains that (500) Days of Summer is most definitely not a love story, and he’s not being the least bit ironic. Oh sure, in many ways, the movie seems a lot like an Annie Hall style “nervous” romantic comedy as the audience follows Tom and Summer as they fast-forward and flashback through the rituals of courtship: a chance meeting in an elevator, the awkward talking points stage, the exhilaration that accompanies the discovery of mutual interests, the moment when sex moves from the realm of possibility to inevitability, the joy of dating–when it’s good–such as spending a day at IKEA, watching arty films, hanging out in a used book or record store, and lots of funny, clumsy, and delightful sex. The trouble is,  the whole thing is incredibly one-sided because Summer is ever only seen through Tom’s eyes.  Whereas Tom has plenty of scenes that take place without Summer’s physical presence, the audience always sees Summer as Tom sees her. She seems to not exist outside of his own imagination, a point made clear in a sequence in which it first appears that Summer is engaged in activity with Tom nowhere in sight; however,  the sequence is free of dialogue and framed in such as way as to be a likely projection of what Tom imagines Summer to be doing at that particular moment rather than the actual event itself.

When Tom says, “It’s official. I’m in love with Summer. I love her smile. I love her hair. I love her knees. I love this heart shaped birthmark she has on her neck. I love the way she sometimes licks her lips before she talks. I love the sound of her laugh. I love the way she looks when she’s sleeping,” the sequence is shot and edited to show that Tom has essentially objectified Summer to the degree that she might as well be a collection of doll parts.

I saw something on an Internet Movie Database discussion board that questioned whether Summer ever really existed, but I dismissed that idea without reading the post because I think there is wwwaaaaaaaaaaayy too much solid evidence to refute such a possibility. That noted, I was surprised to hear the director of the movie, Marc Webb, along with the two screenwriters, Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, in addition to star Gordon- Levitt, debate whether Summer is really having a conversation with Tom in one key scene, or whether Tom is more or less daydreaming. I think such a twist actually violates the film’s internal logic, so let’s get past all that nonsense. (I’d be cuirous about what Deschanel thinks about all of this, but she is absent from the DVD’s special features.)   I do think that Tom has idealized, and apparently objectified, Summer to the point that she’s almost too good or too beautiful to be real. In that regard, she’s a lot like Lars’s Bianca. Once again, I think it’s important to remember that the audience sees Summer from Tom’s perspective, and the director, the costumer (Hope Hanafin), along with the hairstylist  (Aaron Light) have performed a nifty trick on Deschanel, outfitting Summer in a variety of classic girlish outfits: blouses with Peter Pan collars and short puffy sleeves, flirty dresses with full skirts, a vintage cocktail dress or two, dainty purses, bows, and ponytails held in place with satin ribbon. Also, Deschanel’s great big blue eyes are framed by a dark fringe of bangs–and  look at that  retro style ponytail again. I swear it looks like Barbie’s from back in the day. Yep, she’s less a woman than an outdated representation of what Tom thinks a woman should be: beautiful, accommodating, seemingly incapable of betrayal, and without a single thought in her head.

There’s a twist, a kink, in the picture because as beautiful as she is, Summer is not good relationship material, and nobody knows that better than she does. From the beginning, Summer is unfailingly honest with Tom, explaining that she doesn’t believe in love, and that she isn’t looking for a serious, long-term commitment. Instead, she lives for the moment, and Tom, despite every reason to tread lightly, seemingly can’t help himself. He obsesses over her and tries to remake her in his own image of what ideal love is supposed to be; moreover, he can’t seem to figure out how she could possibly be unhappy.

Meanwhile, back in Lars’s hometown, there is trouble in paradise. At first, the people close to Lars are shocked and/or disturbed by his inanimate lady friend, but they also feel protective of Lars, and they see that having Bianca in his life has made a positive impact, so they slowly welcome her into their circle. One of the funniest scenes occurs when members of the church address the situation, and one woman, Mrs. Gruner (played by Nancy Beatty), speaks up and reveals that almost everyone in the group has a skeleton or two in the closet, so how is Lars different from the rest? That pretty much settles it, and soon Bianca is the most coveted gal in town. I won’t ruin some of the movie’s best gags. You need to see it for yourself; however, as Bianca’s schedule becomes more demanding, Lars goes from being selfless and giving to being jealous and possessive, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing because he has to learn how relationships work. Once again, Mrs. Gruner is there to set things straight with Lars: “Now, you listen to me. Bianca has a life of her own. No self respecting woman is going to be at your beck and call, mister, and the sooner you learn that, the better.”  Yes, it’s a good thing that Lars has reached out to Bianca in order to allow himself to care for something, but he also has to learn that he can’t control all situations at all times, and that loved ones should not be treated as possessions. In this way, Lars and Tom Hansen are a lot alike.

Ryan Gosling is so good in Lars and the Real Girl that it almost hurts. Watching him go through the huge range of emotional changes that Lars experiences, especially as the movie bounds toward its heartfelt conclusion, is something akin to watching a full grown man being born right in front of the audience’s eyes, so it’s disconcerting yet also joyous. What’s so great about this performance? Well, for starters, Gosling never breaks character. He’s utterly sincere from beginning to end without a hint of tongue-in-cheek smirkiness. Of course, the counter-argument to such a claim would be that he only does what any good actor would, or should, do. Yes, that’s true, but I do not think that just any actor would be able to commit to the part as fully as Gosling does. After all, I’ve seen good actors give less persuasive performances in less quirky roles. Another thing that astonishes me about this performance is how different Gosling is  from anything he’s done before or since. He’s miles removed from the characters in The Notebook and Half Nelson: voice, body language, facial expression–the works. Here again, skeptics might argue that Gosling is so different because the role is different, and that is how it should be–and as it would be with any good actor. Maybe, but there are plenty of good actors who almost always bring a spark of their own personae to a given role. It’s part of what transforms some good actors into great movie stars. Finally, the mark of a truly exceptional actor is one who is as good at reacting as acting. Look closely at Gosling’s face as he listens to his sister-in-law’s impassioned response to his pity party. Another frighteningly good exchange that demonstrates how “in the moment” Gosling is occurs when Bianca’s doctor (who’s really Lars’s doctor, after all), gently reaches for him, and the least little touch traumatizes him. By the way, that doctor is played by none other than the ever-reliable Patricia Clarkson, who offers some insight in a DVD featurette when she explains how Gosling was always ready to bring something extra, something completely unscripted, to almost every scene. Furthermore, as good as Gosling is at playing off the other actors, he also has to do a lot of acting with an entity that brings nothing to a scene. Plus, I dig his Roy Orbison inspired version of the golden oldie “L-O-V-E.”

In the Entertainment Weekly 2007-2008 awards season preview issue, Dave Karger proclaimed, “…for that fifth slot, we’re betting on RYAN GOSLING, a nominee for last year’s Half Nelson, who proved his range with his fancifully romantic lovebird in Lars and the Real Girl.” Unfortunately, despite nominations for a number of other high profile awards, Gosling was not among Uncle Oscar’s chosen five.

It broke my heart when Gosling wasn’t Oscar nominated for Lars and the Real Girl.  He seemed so close:  Golden Globe nomination, Screen Actors Guild Award nomination, etc.  Oh sure, there is almost no way any actor could have snatched the Oscar away from Daniel Day Lewis’s righteous performance as Daniel Plainmaker in Paul Thomas Anderson’s epic There Will Be Blood, and I’m good with that. Lewis’s performance is likely my all-time favorite Oscar winning leading male performance. Ever. That noted, Gosling was the only other performance by a male actor I saw in 2007 that was truly worthy of being nominated for an Oscar. Oh sure, some of the other nominees were fine, mainly George Clooney (Michael Clayton) and Viggo Mortensen (Eastern Promises). I also very much liked James McAvoy’s un-nominated turn in Best picture nominee Atonement, but I have special disdain for the Academy’s knee-jerk nomination for Johnny Depp’s serviceable work in Tim Burton’s big screen version of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. I’ve said it more than once, and I’ll continue to say it: Sweeney Todd is an opera, and an opera needs a real singer who can also act (that is,  a singer capable of singing in character) instead of a good actor who can merely sing well enough to not embarrass himself. That’s what Depp did, and that’s all he did, in Sweeney Todd, and that’s not worthy of consideration for filmdom’s highest accolades–not even in a big budget, big studio enterprise with a savvy marketing campaign. So there.

I don’t know that I ever really expected Zooey Deschanel to earn an Oscar nomination for (500) Days of Summer, but the movie was well reviewed, and it earned healthy returns at the box office[3] , so I held out hope that a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy would materialize; however, that did not happen. On the other hand,  the members of the Hollywood Foreign Press (the Globes’ parent organization) saw fit to nominate Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and that makes a certain amount of sense because Tom experiences more obvious emotional changes than does Summer. I totally get that, and, make no mistake, Gordon-Levitt is superb though I think Deschanel has the trickier role. After all, how easy can it be to play an enigma? Summer’s wide eyed beauty masks a lot hurt and confusion that she would just as soon ignore, and in this way she has more in common with Lars than she does with Bianca–even though her boyfriend treats her like a doll. Director Marc Webb puts the camera right up close on Deschanel’s face, and the actress thoughtfully shows the tentative woman-child behind the bewitching facade. Deschanel never forgets the key points from Summer’s childhood that the narrator addresses in the prologue: “Since the disintegration of her parents’ marriage, she’d only loved two things. The first was her long dark hair. The second was how easily she could cut it off and feel nothing.” Summer has had years to build a complex emotional armor that both easily lets her off the hook when it comes to relationships while also constraining her growth, and all that is there, just under the surface, in Deschanel’s portrayal.

(500) Days of Summer was nominated for many prizes during the 2009-2010 awards season, including a Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture Musical or Comedy, a People’s Choice Award, and a Writers Guild Award. Unfortunately, actress Zooey Deschanel was overlooked in most every contest. On the other hand, costumer Hope Hanafin was nominated for a guild award in the category of contemporary design. On the DVD, director Marc Webb explains that with one exception, the color blue was reserved exclusively for Deschanel’s character.

How much do I admire this performance? In 2009, it was second only to Sandra Bullock’s Oscar winning work in The Blind Side among leading actresses–at least in my book. I wasn’t thrilled by Meryl Streep’s broad impersonation of Julia Child in Julie and Julia, and I thought Precious newcomer Gabourey Sidibe, while emotionally affecting, was pretty much blown off the screen by her Oscar winning co-star Mo’Nique.  To clarify: once again, I was hardly surprised that Deschanel was overlooked by the Academy, but the fact that she was also overlooked as a Golden Globe nominee, and even an Independent Spirit Award nominee, is a little startling. Gordon-Levitt, to clarify, was nominated for both, and–once again–good for him, but I think his performance wouldn’t be as effective if Deschanel weren’t also at the top of her game. No, the most that Deschanel could muster during the 2009-2010 awards season was a Satellite nomination, which is like the Globes’ disreputable stepchild. Since I’ve already gone so far as to knock the Academy for nominating Johnny Depp in Sweeney Todd, I might as well go ahead and add that bestowing a nod upon Helen Mirren for her performance in the inconsequential The Last Station was joke–a bad joke. Mirren already has an Oscar for playing Queen Elizabeth II, and she’s better than the token nod she received for would-be prestige fare.

Though Gosling and Deschanel were overlooked by the Academy, their films were not completely forgotten during their respective awards seasons. As noted, Gosling scored a number of nominations from the various press associations as well as his peers in the Screen Actors Guild; meanwhile, Lars screenwriter Nancy Oliver attracted a bevy of laurels, including an award from the National Board of Review in addition to a nomination for the Writers Guild Award, and, yes, even an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. She lost to Diablo Cody for the overrated Juno. What’s so original about that?  Additionally, first time feature film director Chris Gillespie was nominated as Most Promising Filmmaker by the Chicago Film Critics Association. Likewise, (500) Days of Summer fared well in the awards derby. Besides the Globe and Independent Spirit nominations for Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the writing team of  Neustadter and Weber garnered the Independent Spirit Award and a Writer’s Guild nomination among other accolades; meanwhile, director Marc Webb earned the National Board of Review’s Spotlight prize.

Interestingly, both movies  were recognized among their respective year’s best acting ensmbles by the Casting Society of America. Yes, there really is an award for such a thing. Indeed, Lars and the Real Girls is exceptionally well played. Gosling is definitely front and center, but he’s not alone. The aforementioned Clarkson is quite amazing as the doctor who has to tend to Lars without him being quite aware of it–and how she engineers that is duly ingenious. Clarkson’s every line reading is infused with layers of meaning, and she makes it seem effortless. Other standouts include Emily Mortimer (as Lars’s well meaning sister-in-law), Kelli Garner (a smitten co-worker), and, again, the no-nonsense Nancy Beatty. Even Paul Schneider acquits himself admirably in the thankless role of Lars’s initially skeptical brother. The supporting characters in (500) Days of Summer are not as well defined as those in Lars and the Real Girl, but they all have their moments. First among equals is Geoffrey Arnend as McKenzie, Tom’s slobalicious friend and co-worker. The best of the rest includes Matthew Gray Gubler (as Paul, Tom’s longtime friend who delivers a wonderful monologue about true love);  Chloe Grace Moretz, (Tom’s precocious younger sister Rachel),  Clark Gregg (the optimistic company man), and Rachel Boston (a date who has little tolerance for Tom’s whining).

The fact that Deschanel and Gosling are enjoying such thriving careers shows that winning, or being nominated for, an Oscar is not the last word in Hollywood. On the other hand, trophies are nice objects to put on pedestals and admire–better a trophy than a woman, right?

Thanks for your consideration….

[1] Besides being the daughter of a famous cinematographer, Zooey Deschanel is also the younger sister of Emily Deschanel, one of the stars of the popular TV series, Bones. Her mother, Emily, is an actress, who appeared in the 1983 Best Picture nominee The Right Stuff.  Caleb Deschanel is a 5 time Oscar nominee. Check his profile on the Internet Movie Database:

http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0221042/

[2] Two of Stephen Gyllenhaal’s most famosu credits are the TV movies Paris, Trout (1991), and A Killing in a Small Town (1990). He won a Directors Guild Award for the former, and earned an Emmy nomination for the latter, which details the grisly saga of Candace Montgomery, the McKinney woman who used an ax to murder her close friend. The TV version was actually filmed in the DFW Metroplex. Check out Stephen Gyllenhaal’s filmography: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0350455/

[3] Per Box Office Mojo: (500) Days of Summer cost 7.5 million to produce and earned over 30 million at the U.S. box office, enjoying a healthy run of 19 weeks:

http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=500daysofsummer.htm

More links!

Entertainment Weekly reviews A Very She and Him Chrstmas:

http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,20538107,00.html

Southern Poverty Law Center report on “Hate and Hypocrisy” with background information on Daniel Burros, the man that inspired the movie The Believer:

http://www.splcenter.org/get-informed/intelligence-report/browse-all-issues/2002/winter/hate-and-hypocrisy?page=0,1

Entertainment Weekly‘s Dave Karger previews the 2007-2008 awards season:

http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,20170462,00.html

Casting Society of America website: http://www.castingsociety.com/index.php

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