400 Screens, 400 Blows is a weekly column that takes an in-depth look at the films playing below the radar, beneath the top ten, and on 400 screens or less.
I'm rather dismayed by the huge success of the awful He's Just Not That Into You (21 screens). I mean, I like Bradley Cooper in general, and Justin Long's character is interesting for a while, at least until his stupid Hollywood redemption during the third act. And it does pose an interesting question: if you were married to Jennifer Connelly and had the chance to sleep with Scarlett Johansson, would you do it? I prefer to think of this question as a koan, or an unanswerable riddle meant to be pondered during meditation. Now, I know what you're thinking: this guy just doesn't like chick flicks. Not true. I love chick flicks, provided they're good, which they rarely are. Chick flicks are almost like horror films; the filmmakers have their audience hooked already and so most of them do the minimum amount of work required to crank out another just like the last one.
The main problem with He's Just Not That Into You is that it's based on a self-help book, and so the characters are seen as types of problems, like a checklist. This one is a little too wound up, and that one is a little too shy and the other one lacks self confidence. That's as far as the writers went. They never once bothered to think of these creatures as living, breathing people with other, more complex thoughts and feelings. Why does Gigi (Ginnifer Goodwin) act like such an idiot all the time? Where does she get these traits? Is she aware of her own behavior? Does she ever get a moment in which she just relaxes, or does she have to be neurotic every second of the day?
On the other end of the spectrum, we have Jim Jarmusch's totally misunderstood The Limits of Control (18 screens). This is also a film in which the characters are reduced to a bare essence, but this time it works. Rather than flinging their neuroses all over the screen, these characters are ciphers, hiding virtually everything behind prepared speeches about the things they like (art, music, movies, etc.). Then there's the hero, who hides behind a mask of nothingness; it's like the 2001: A Space Odyssey of hitman movies. The trick to the movie is that it appears to be a particular genre movie, and we expect to eventually get some information about why the hit is taking place, or just who the hitman is (does he regularly visit a shrink?), but Jarmusch continually withholds this information, pulling us along on a thin rope of hope, and a great, huge serving of mystery and curiosity.
Essentially the difference between the two films it that He's Just Not That Into You throws everything out on the screen and leaves nothing for audiences to discover; there's no room to move in it. The Limits of Control has nothing but room to move; it's an almost total mystery with few answers. It's the difference between being plugged into an automatic entertainment machine or engaging with a unique artist on a personal level. One is certainly easier, but the wonder of movies is that the latter option is even possible.