Tuesday, July 21, 2009
Early on in "(500) Days of Summer" (opened July 17 at Landmark's Hillcrest Cinemas), the narrator announces that this is not a love story. But of course that's precisely what it is – it's a story about the possibilities and impossibilities of love. It's less conventional than most love stories and does try to position itself as something of an anti-love story, but deep down it is exactly what it denies it is and that's kind of the point.
Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) has developed a sense of romantic love based mostly on British pop songs and an incorrect reading of the end of "The Graduate." Summer (Zooey Deschanel as the Summer of the title) will not allow herself to be deluded by thoughts of romantic love. She's not interested in commitment and maybe that's because she seems to inspire immediate infatuation in so many young men. Tom and Summer end up working at the same greeting card company where Tom is immediately smitten with the lovely Summer.
But the film does not take a linear approach to the relationship. Director Marc Webb and writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber take 500 days of Tom's relationship with Summer and then proceed to jump around that timeline in a highly entertaining manner playing the imminent break up against the first day they meet, or some ecstatic high against a debilitating low, and sometimes replaying a moment more than once in order to place it in a new and revealing context. The non-linear narrative structure freshens up the romantic formula and allows for something of a deconstruction of the romantic process. It also allows for moments of genuine insight into the elusive nature of love and romantic chemistry, playing pain against joy, hope against reality. But no matter how much the film may try to dismiss notions of romance, it ultimately succumbs to almost all of them, the only difference is that it acknowledges the often-painful process of finding that true love.
Like "Little Children" or "Personal Velocity," "(500) Days of Summer" uses a detached, omniscient male narrator to lead us through its story. That decision provides for some humor but at other times feels like a forced contrivance. But the notion of jumping around in the relationship proves smart and funny. There are a few truly inspired sequences in which clever scripting and editing combine for some cinematic perfection. One such sequence involves a spontaneous musical number that reveals Tom's giddy romantic high after a night with Summer.
Another is a split screen sequence in which Tom's expectations for an evening with Summer are played out in stark contrast to the realities of the night. We’re also treated to a lovely montage of Summer's radiant traits that later played out in the exact same manner except that everything that Tom loved has become everything that he now hates. There's a hint of the French New Wave in Webb's montages and freeform narrative structure.
"(500) Days of Summer" delivers enough innovation to make us turn a blind eye to its flaws. Despite its fresh approach it still delivers a lot of clichés – cute pre-teen romantic consultant for Tom, goofy lovelorn friends, quirky workplace – these things are all too familiar and are never freshened up. But as the lead characters, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel make us care. Gordon-Levitt is both the dreamy romantic who believes in instant chemistry and the dour pessimist who grounds us in reality. His mood swings fuel the film and provide the peaks and valleys that prove painfully funny. Deschanel's Summer is more elusive and harder to pin down. From Tom's perspective she's a bitch who leads him on and torments him. But from a less subjective point of view she's more like the lead character of Spike Lee's "She's Gotta Have It." Both these women are honest and up front in terms of their desires and they drive men crazy because they don't feel the need to commit to a relationship in order to enjoy sex.
"(500) Days of Summer" (rated PG-13 for sexual material and language) tweaks the rom-com formula and wins us over with a bittersweet sense of sincerity as it explores the mysteries, joys, and pain of love.
Companion viewing: "She's Gotta Have It," "The Graduate," "Chasing Amy," "Garden State"