The Opinion Engine 2.0:
What's your opinion of Zooey Deschanel?

Question asked by Annette of Annette's Notebook.

“One day, you’ll be cool.”

Film & Music  The first time I really noticed Zooey Deschanel, though in truth it felt like she'd noticed me, was near the beginning of Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, in which she plays Anita, the rebellious big sister of William, Crowe’s avatar in this autobiographical piece.   She was leaving home to become an airline stewardess and before toddling off around the world she said goodbye to her little brother and as ever Crowe employed a point of view shot because he wanted us to see the world through William's innocent perception.

As she loomed over her brother, she looked directly at us and although the effect of this is lost even on the biggest television, in the cinema on a massive screen, we were collectively hypnotised by her saucer like blue eyes. I’ve never been cool, never will be cool, but when she said, “One day, you’ll be cool", a decade ago, I could well believe it and watching again for the purposes of taking the not quite convincing low angle shot reproduced above for illustrative purposes, I believed it again.

That single moment probably defines her entire career, the girl who makes you feel cool.  She does it again in the disappointing film version of The Hitchhiker's Guide To Galaxy which despite the best efforts of Stephen Fry as the book, is an abomination, but offers the best of the Trillians, which isn’t hard because (a) Douglas Adams himself had admitted that he always underwrote her in the early stories and (b) because Zooey steals every scene she's in, even when acting opposite a hypertensive Sam Rockwell as Zaphod.

She is understated. Human. Even more so than Martin Freeman whose main crime is not being Simon Jones, which is odd because Zooey is neither Susan Sheridan or Sandra Dickinson.  But unlike either of those her Trillian seems like someone you could meet at a party, fall for, but who'll ultimate leave with some other, spacey guy, unless she's in the mood to make you think better of yourself, work through your low-self esteem and, yes, one day make you cool. 

It took a few more years before someone neatly defined that special quality, the manic pixie dream girl. Since being coined by Nathan Rabin at The AV Club, it’s become the key discoursal phrase when describing the girl who saunters into a rather straight protagonist’s life and shakes it up, the kind of figure Arthur Dent epitomises even if the weird meta-narrative he's trapped in has other plans. Not every role. You could argue against Anita and certainly Alma in The Happening barely qualifies (a film which we’ll return to),

But in Elf, Yes Man and 500 Days of Summer and countless others, she’s the slightly quirky, bo-ho figure, usually with an ability to sing who causes some male to look again at their life and find it wanting. But unlike other MPDGs, the Kirsten Dunsts or Natalie Portmans who’re acting the role, and despite having not appeared in Rabin's original list, Zooey embodies it and when in the above examples she's not offering the smirk of giddy tolerance every five minutes, she's working against her natural tendencies.

From what I’ve seen of her television series New Girl (which is admittedly not much), it’s also a continuation of all that tone. You know what you’re going to get from a Zooey Deschanel performance which is really quite comforting. We expect musicians or directors to keep within their own style, with one or two exceptions, so why should we expect anything more or less from an actor? She’s the master of the precise thing she does and projects have probably suffered when she's trying other things.

All very old Hollywood and it continues into real life (or the version of real life that's filter through gossip blogs).  Recording the soundtrack album to Winnie the Pooh is a very MPDG thing to do, as is wearing vintage clothes, co-owning a lifestyle website called Hello Giggles and marrying the lead vocalist from a mid-level band like Death Cab for Cutie, presumably breaking the heart of some other bloke close to hand, before perhaps breaking his heart too.

Not that she’s the reason to watch every film. As with everyone else involved, The Happening almost ended her career, though I still argue that even if you disagree with intent, “Night” directed the actors to “do it that way” so they can’t really be held responsible (not that admittedly “following orders” isn’t a recipe for trouble).  Most recently she was wasted in Your Highness (incidentally with Portman), a film which only seems to work if you’re the breed of person who thinks Danny McBride is the comic genius he isn’t.

Zooey’s musical career has happily been more adorable. As one half of She & Him, M. Ward being the Him, she’s produced the musical equivalent of her fashions, recalling the vintage tones of the 40s and 50s but with a modern twist. The original material was summed up well by Pitchfork in an interview when they suggested “listening to your lyrics I sometimes feel like a big sister is giving me advice” (bringing us back to Almost Famous).

The cover versions are something else, amongst other things recapturing Gonna Get Along Without You Now from a myriad tonally incorrect disco versions though somehow also influenced by the rendition on Laverne and Shirley Sing. Yes, that Laverne and Shirley.  Their new acoustic Christmas disc is right on form, with almost minimalist accompaniment to old faithfuls like Have Yourself a Merry Christmas, the art redolent of dime store LPs from the 1950s.

In other words, my opinion of Zooey Deschanel is that she’s adorable and just the big sister I would have wanted growing up if I hadn’t been an only child and far younger than I am now. I appreciate she’s not to everyone’s taste, the reaction to her singing of the US national anthem proved that, but I’m yet to particularly find a flaw. Anyone who can be plagued by her similarity to some new singer who’s just turned up yet still agree to appear in a photograph with her has to be a bit funny and they’re the kinds of people I tend to like.

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