So we know where we stand, let's get this out of the way: (500) Days of Summer is the worst U.S. movie ever made without the participation of Dan Aykroyd or Tara Reid. It is so howlingly smug and emotionally undignified that you can watch it as a freshly heartbroken heterosexual male and still not feel all that sorry for ... anybody. It is such an infuriating barge of tripe that even the Hall and Oates dance sequence — the film's sole feint toward recognizable charm — fails to please Hall and Oates fans or anger Hall and Oates haters. Nope — Joseph Gordon-Levitt jazz-handsing his way through Los Angeles in post-coital jubilation is just one more stupid thing that happens in a movie full of stupid people speaking and behaving in ways that no one really does.
The two dudes who wrote (500) Days of Summer have now adapted the well-regarded YA novel The Spectacular Now for director James Ponsoldt. And though Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber are still pathologically incapable of voicing their female characters as much more than cheerleaders for the breakable young men who pursue them, two things make Now worth watching.
One is its look. Ponsoldt and British cinematographer Jess Hall, shooting in Athens, Georgia, have cast an American summer in sylvan gloaming. This is what bright futures look like through a hangover squint. A dim glow vibrates around the edges of the frame, and you remember what it was like to feel most alive around 4 p.m., after school and before dark. It's not hard to see why Wally Pfister, the go-to cinematographer for Christopher Nolan, hired Hall to shoot his own first feature as a director.
The other is Shailene Woodley. The 21-year-old actress, so good in The Descendants two years ago, is even better here. She's Aimee, the shy, bookish high school girl swept into a boozy riptide by her alcoholic classmate Sutter Keely (Miles Teller, channeling a very young Richard Dreyfuss, mostly in a good way). Sutter teaches her how to hang, gives her a flask, shows her what it feels like to mistake a discontented haze for romance. Wrapped together in a gauzy shroud of shared drunkenness, they negotiate the final weeks of high school as a couple, and Aimee of course helps Sutter reach a kind of fulfillment without the inconvenience of detox, through the magic elixir of teachable forgiveness. But Woodley is so alert and natural that she helps you forgive the weak writing. She alone keeps The Spectacular Now from sinking into self-pity.