Friday, July 31, 2009

(500) Days of Summer

(500) DAYS OF SUMMER (Marc Webb, 2009)

In (500) DAYS OF SUMMER Tom Hansen (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) just can't get over Summer, the greeting card company co-worker who captures and inevitably breaks his heart. Tom should have anticipated this outcome and not simply because their initial flirtation took place over shared love for the doomed romanticism of The Smiths. Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel) told him upfront in no uncertain terms that she wasn't looking for a serious relationship and, in fact, doesn't believe in love.

For awhile their casual and affectionate coupledom is more than enough to satisfy Tom, but the increasing differences in what Tom and Summer get and expect from the relationship eventually put an unbearable strain on it. She calls it quits. He falls to pieces.

Tom's friends and little sister Rachel (Chloe Moretz) try to help him cope, but he can't see beyond his hard-fixed belief that Summer is the one he is meant to love forever and ever. Tom holds out hope that a reconciliation may happen. Since the film doesn't introduce to the characters on the 500th day, perhaps he has reason to think things will work out.

(500) DAYS OF SUMMER'S non-linear timeline skips among the highs and lows during the not quite seventeen months in which Tom meets, dates, and remains hung up on the woman he is determined is everything he could ever want and more. Never mind that she doesn't reciprocate his ardor with the same intensity or desire for long-term commitment. The movies, pop music, and even the sentimental cards he writes for a living all reinforce the idea of a single soulmate and eternal happiness. Tom knows he's found this person in Summer, so why doesn't she feel similarly?

The answer, of course, is that life and love are rarely as tidy as art's simplified representations and the romantic's self-deluded perceptions. (500) DAYS OF SUMMER takes a hammer to romantic comedy tropes that distort the interpersonal dynamics between men and women into childish knight-in-shining-armor and princess fantasies. Of particular note is when the film shatters illusions with an amusing and heartbreaking scene that plays out in split-screen. One side is labeled "expectations", and the other is dubbed "reality". For Tom the gulf between the two sides of the frame is wide. He's fated to be miserable until he can accept that what he hoped for and what happened don't align.

While (500) DAYS OF SUMMER doesn't deal in the common yet unrealistic movie portrayals of falling in love, that hardly means it's a bitter or unpleasant film. It's romantic, funny and, yes, sad because director Marc Webb and screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber strive for emotional realism that audience members can relate to better than the exaggerated nonsense that passes for many film love affairs.

(500) DAYS OF SUMMER can bring out that jubilant feeling, such as when Tom celebrates a relationship breakthrough by strutting down the street in a musical number scored by a bouncy Hall & Oates hit. The scene is over the top yet retains the ring of truth. Likewise, (500) DAYS OF SUMMER expresses the humor and pain of romantic contradictions. Tom's adoration of Summer's quirks turns into annoyance after they've broken up. His impression of her has changed, not Summer's specific qualities. These kinds of small details regarding how people think and behave is what makes the film more keenly felt than offerings in which both halves of a pair detest one another for ninety minutes and then awaken to their mutual but previously inevident passion in the final reel.

The advantage (500) DAYS OF SUMMER has over other romantic comedies isn't any radical innovation, yet it eludes a fair number of these films. Simply put, here the characters communicate. The enjoyment and heartache come from seeing Tom and Summer experience ups and downs together. Keeping them apart in any manner of contrived scenarios would be the typical gambit. When the characters do separate, it's not due to any villainous conduct on either part but a genuine disagreement on what the relationship should be.

As the commitment-seeking emotional mess and the nonchalant pragmatist, Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel are a delight to watch as they reverse gender stereotypes. Gordon-Levitt displays a great deal of charm by investing Tom with the enthusiasm and wounded nature of a puppy dog. Deschanel plays the familiar part of mildly eccentric dream girl, but she inhabits the role with an introvert's grounding and secrecy. Tom may view Summer as an angel of salvation, but Deschanel plays her like the flesh-and-blood mortal she is.

Stylistically Webb indulges a taste for French New Wave playfulness, some of which almost nudges the film into overly cute territory. Another unmistakable influence is ANNIE HALL. (500) DAYS OF SUMMER doesn't reach the rarefied level of Woody Allen's masterpiece, but the film's bruised yet clear-eyed romanticism is refreshing to find in a genre that often settles for something less than truthful or passionate.

Grade: B+

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