A Ripping Yarn

Photo: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Now that we know how the saga ends (with a ho and a hum), Harry Potter feels so…2008. Kids who started reading J.K. Rowling prepubertally (“He and Cho Chang snog? No way!”) have since moved on to Mormon sexual-repression parables involving vampires, while Little Harry got naked on Broadway and blinded six horses with a metal spike. Undaunted, Warner announced it would prolong its franchise by splitting the underplotted final book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, into two movies. (If they split the second part of that and keep splitting, the series could go on to infinity.) As tag teams of agents and executives labor to convince Dame J.K. that the world desperately needs prequels (Young Dumbledore and the Temple of Doom!), here comes movie No. 6, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Do we give a damn?

I didn’t, until the film started—and it was splendid! No, it’s not a larky kid-pic. We’re firmly in the realm of English horror, as one set of sallow Brits battles another even sallower. Our villains are racist murderers; our heroes embody tolerance, discipline, and a British public-school education, heavy on Latin—which, when chanted properly behind a wand, can mean the difference between goosing and defenestrating someone. As the aged Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) hears the chimes at midnight, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermione (Emma Watson), Ron (Rupert Grint), and Ron’s newly sprouted kid sister, Ginny (Bonnie Wright), struggle to keep their desires (and vindictive hexes) in check while their objects of affection snog other people. If Voldemort (present in this movie only in spirit) were a true evil genius, he’d have abandoned the horcrux nonsense and used their own hormones against them.

Screenwriter Steve Kloves—who adapted earlier Potter tomes with excessive reverence—sat out part five and is in fighting form, cutting a droll path through Rowling’s verbiage. Apart from the fact that no one who hasn’t seen parts one through five will have a clue what’s going on, this barely feels like a sequel. Director David Yates creates Orson Welles–ish multiple levels of action, and when the camera sails around Hogwarts’ turrets, it’s as if the CGI is an extension of the wizards’ magic.

Illustrious British actors pop in and out, intoning their few lines and collecting the paychecks that underwrite their stage work (and country houses). As Professor Snape, either a double or triple agent, Alan Rickman hits new levels of hauteur, breaking up sentences with long, disdainful beats: I counted five seconds between two words, and I’m guessing Dame Maggie Smith bit her tongue to keep from howling. Jim Broadbent shows up as the new professor, Slughorn, and he makes the man at once dotty and haunted, the dottiness keeping his guilt at bay.

Our three protagonists are taller, more polished, more charismatic—after all, they’re movie stars now. But Emma Watson’s Hermione has turned out disappointingly. It’s not Watson’s fault she grew up so pretty, so poised, with such luscious tresses. But someone ought to have reminded the filmmakers that in this boy-centric universe, Hermione is the nerdy-wonky cutie with whom all girls, hot and not, could identify. Now she’s just another cover girl. I found myself wishing for more of the washed-out blonde Evanna Lynch and her glassy singsong as the space case Luna Lovegood, the last female reminder that Harry Potter began as a universe of misfits.

Once upon a time, screenwriter Scott Neustadter fell for a remarkably attractive but commitment-averse woman and instantly decided she was the One—and he kept hope alive until she dumped him. He hasn’t gotten over it: The pain in (500) Days of Summer (written with Michael H. Weber) feels very raw. The movie, directed by Marc Webb, is told entirely from the point of view of Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), an aspiring architect earning a living concocting greeting-card platitudes while the love of his life, Summer (Zooey Deschanel, with her sexy-slurry delivery and electric-blue eyes), remains unreadable, unknowable, endlessly manipulative. Line by line, the script is clever, but it’s the syntax that kills. There’s a counter on the screen, and the movie leaps from day 259 to 1 to 154 and back and forth until we reach 500. Starting with the breakup means we see what Tom, in the moment, can’t: She’s trouble, and he’s an emotional ding-a-ling.

That slick Son–of–Charlie Kaufman stuff is enough to put (500) Days of Summer over, and Levitt—who moves groggily, as if he sleeps all day but never deeply—is an expert enough comedian to mope without killing the pace. There’s a neat dramatic coup when Tom and Summer play house in an Ikea store, and an ingenious split-screen sequence in which “Expectation” on the left gradually diverges from “Reality” on the right. But the film is, finally, a brilliant tap dance over a void: There’s no real drama when the inner life of the female lead is so shrouded, even if that’s the point. Compare (500) Days to the messed-up teen comedy I Love You, Beth Cooper, adapted by Larry Doyle from his rollicking novel. The latter film is ploddingly directed, but along the way the object of the nerd hero’s fantasies, Beth Cooper (a lovely performance by Hayden Panettiere), acquires more and more complexity. And three dimensions, however dim, are more enlivening than the sparkling two of (500) Days of Summer.

If you manage not to bolt in the first five minutes of Death in Love—wherein Boaz Yakin cuts back and forth between a Jewish girl having sex with a Nazi and graphic shots of Nazis performing experimental surgery on Jews—you’ll be rewarded with a pretentious and stilted but weirdly compelling blend of sins-of-the-parent saga and horror movie. The torrid affair enables Mom (Jacqueline Bisset) to survive the Holocaust, but she goes on to destroy her sons, a con artist (Josh Lucas) with a penchant for S&M who victimizes women, and a basket case (Lukas Haas) who’s terrified of them. Really, there’s something here to offend everyone: It’s the kind of film that makes you want to shout invectives at the screen. But it also reminds you how little there is in the way of movies about how family traumas get worked out (or just acted out) in the bedroom. We need more insane artists to light the dark paths ahead.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Directed by David Yates.
Warner Brothers Pictures. PG.

(500) Days of Summer
Directed by Marc Webb.
Fox Searchlight Pictures. PG-13.

Death in Love
Directed by Boaz Yakin.
Screen Media Films. R.

E-mail: filmcritic@newyorkmag.com.

A Ripping Yarn