Thursday, January 22, 2009

Sundance 2009: Lessons in Love

[Film Fest] Ah, l'amour. The movies have always loved love, but if it's a Sundance romance, odds are that it's a love story in which someone learns something.

The connection between love and life lessons is most clearly on display in An Education, adapted by screenwriter Nick Hornby (High Fidelity) from the memoir by Lynn Barber. In 1961 England, 16-year-old Jenny (Carey Mulligan) is a top student on her way to fulfilling the dreams of her practical-minded dad (Alfred Molina) that she attend Oxford. But a charming older man named David (Peter Sarsgaard) enters her life, and Jenny soon becomes enamored of his sophisticated world of art, music and trips to Paris -- even if it happens to be financed by a little thievery.

A surprisingly minuscule amount of time is devoted to Jenny's qualms about living a larceny-fueled high life, but Mulligan -- in a thoroughly charming lead performance -- makes Jenny's desire for beautiful things more interesting than shallow. It's a generally satisfying story as a whole, with one glaring problem: It's hard to believe Jenny actually gets into this situation in the first place. As played by Molina, her father is almost a sit-com character, far too easily swayed by David's smooth talk to allow his teenage daughter to take off on weekend trips with a 30-something guy. And Sarsgaard's David, frankly, doesn't come off as all that much of a smooth talker. Long before Jenny realizes it, we've already figured out that she could do better.

There are no such problems buying the central pairing in the delightful 500 Days of Summer -- in large part because we're told from the outset that this love story won't end happily. Tom (Joseph Gordon Leavitt), a trained architect slumming as a greeting-card writer, falls hard for his boss's new assistant, Summer (Zooey Deschanel), and for a while the attraction is even reciprocal. The catch is that the director Marc Webb's chronology flips back and forth in time, and we see their breakup fairly early on.

So what's the appeal in a doomed romantic comedy? True, the script does push the limits of cuteness, including touches like having Tom's primary romantic confidante be his worldly-wise 12-year-old sister. Still, it's hard to resist a lot of the material here, including a dance number setting Tom's post-coital bliss to Hall & Oates' "You Make My Dreams." Even better, this is the rare romance that isn't about the love affair that's "The One." It's about the one that makes you ready for "The One," as painful as it can be when it's over. That's love, Sundance style. (Scott Renshaw)

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