Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt play amorous co-workers in “(500) Days of Summer,” directed by Marc Webb.
July 17, 2009
Love at the Greeting Card Company: Best Wishes on Your Breakup
Early in “(500) Days of Summer” the omniscient narrator who intermittently (and somewhat annoyingly) comments on the action cautions that the movie is “not a love story.” The print advertisements qualify his words, describing this slight, charming and refreshingly candid little picture as “a story about love.” Which it is: a story about how love can be confusing, contingent and asymmetrical, and about how love can fail. Given all this, it’s somewhat remarkable that “(500) Days,” the feature directing debut of the music video auteur Marc Webb, is neither depressing nor French.
But it is, all the same, a fairly pointed response to the sorry state of romantic comedy in Hollywood, which runs the gamut from gauzily implausible fantasy to blatant and fatuous dishonesty, with an occasional detour into raunchy humor. The governing commercial calculus these days seems to be that dudes want smut, ladies want weddings, and a picture (like “The Hangover,” say) that delivers both will make the audience happy and the studios rich.
This dispensation means that more delicate, and perhaps more authentic, feelings and attitudes must be spoken about either with subtitles or, from time to time, in mumbles. So a winsome, accessible movie about more-or-less recognizable young people navigating the murky waters of post-sexual-revolutionary, midrecessionary heterosexual attraction has a novelty and a measure of bravery working in its favor, whatever its shortcomings. And “(500) Days” finds just the right scale and tone, neither trivializing nor melodramatically overstating the delicate feelings it explores.
Some of the credibility that Mr. Webb’s movie establishes right away comes from its unassuming and appealing stars, Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. With his crooked smile, reedy physique and improbably deep voice, Mr. Gordon-Levitt camouflages his magnetism with diffidence, much as Ms. Deschanel uses her slightly spacey, vaguely melancholy affect to magnify the charm she is pretending to disguise. Their characters, Tom Hansen and Summer Finn, seem so ideally matched, such a cozily compatible semi-hipster couple, that it’s a bit of a shock when things don’t work out between them.
Don’t worry; I haven’t given anything away. Mr. Webb and the screenwriters, Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, have scrambled the chronology so that Tom and Summer’s meet-cute and their eventual bust-up occur, in film time, close together and near the beginning. What follows is a shuffled, teasing and ingeniously structured presentation of their romance’s heady commencement, ambiguous middle and (at least for one of them) tormented aftermath. This structure restores a measure of the suspense that is usually missing from the romantic-comedy genre, which relies on climactic chases to the airport and ridiculously contrived choices between rival mates. From the outset you know, more or less, what happened between Tom and Summer, so most of your curiosity is invested in the question of how it all came to pass.
The answers, in themselves, are not earthshakingly dramatic or even especially unusual. A workplace flirtation — Tom and Summer are employees of a Los Angeles greeting card company — leads to a few missed chances, a sweet first kiss and fitful progress from casual to serious. Or so it seems to Tom, an unapologetic believer in true love, soul mates and other touchstones of greeting card mythology (and romantic comedy ideology). Summer is skeptical of such notions and refuses to promise commitment or even consistency, but she does seem to want more and more of Tom’s company, and this leads him to believe that her carefully maintained barriers to intimacy are beginning to fall.
The design of “(500) Days” suggests a puzzle with a few crucial pieces left in the box. Some of this elusiveness comes from an admirable impulse to respect the enigmatic fluctuations of desire and infatuation. But there is also something tentative and half-finished about the film, which substitutes a few too many gimmicks — split screens, a musical number, that voice-over — for moments of real intensity or humor and seems a little afraid to make its main characters too interesting or idiosyncratic.
Instead they project a kind of generic individuality, with shared tastes that ensure a measure of compatibility — they both like the Smiths! — and divergent quirks to provide some interesting friction. (Her favorite Beatle is Ringo!) Tom, whose point of view predominates in spite of the third-person narrator, has a couple of goofy pals (Matthew Gray Gubler and Geoffrey Arend) and a wise younger sister (Chloë Grace Moretz). He also has the stymied, or at least deferred, ambition to be an architect instead of a drone in a best-wishes factory.
One indication of the film’s thinness is that Summer has no such professional or creative pursuits — she’s the assistant to Tom’s boss (Clark Gregg) — and no identifiable passions, friends or characteristics other than her heart-stopping desirability and her vintage-y dresses. Ms. Deschanel excels at playing this kind of cute, quasi-bohemian crush object, but after “Elf” and “Yes Man” and “All the Real Girls” it would be nice if some smitten filmmaker would write her a fully developed, less passive part.
Still, I don’t want to pop the shimmering soap bubble of “(500) Days of Summer,” a movie that is, for the most part, as mopily, winningly seductive as the Regina Spektor songs on the soundtrack and at its best as unexpectedly lovely as the views of Los Angeles captured by Mr. Webb and his director of photography, Eric Steelberg. At first, I mistook the city for Chicago or Philadelphia or some other old-growth conurbation, and Mr. Webb, who has directed videos for artists as different as Miley Cyrus and My Chemical Romance, deserves credit for finding new and fresh perspectives on this overexposed metropolis. There are no beaches or Spanish-style bungalows in the hills, just a scruffy, comfortable atmosphere of melancholy optimism that suits Tom and Summer perfectly, in all their imperfection.
“(500) Days of Summer” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). It has a very mild sexual vibe and some equally mild profanity.
(500) DAYS OF SUMMER
Opens on Friday nationwide.
Directed by Marc Webb; written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber; director of photography, Eric Steelberg; edited by Alan Edward Bell; music by Mychael Danna and Rob Simonsen; production designer, Laura Fox; produced by Jessica Tuchinsky, Mark Waters and Mason Novick; released by Fox Searchlight Pictures. Running time: 1 hour 36 minutes.
WITH: Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Tom), Zooey Deschanel (Summer), Geoffrey Arend (McKenzie), Chloë Grace Moretz (Rachel), Matthew Gray Gubler (Paul), Clark Gregg (Vance), Rachel Boston (Alison) and Minka Kelly (Girl at Interview).
Excellent Romantic Comedy
An offbeat, original romantic “date-film” that will surely be a favorite of many of the people who go see it. But do many moviegoers see “small” movies any more, movies without stars and wish-fulfillment worlds shown off through Hollywood production value? This movie will be a test case because it’s chock full of inventive visual and character ideas—and with a leading man and woman who display real on-screen chemistry, a rare occurrence. Although the characters are different than their forebears, one might think of Jean-Pierre Leaud and Anna Karenina in a New Wave film halfway between Godard and Truffaut, but with a more carefully developed American narrative that balances plot and sub-plot (romantic and career ambition) so that the interplay of both depict that certain time of youthful life. With impressive skill, the story navigates a challenging arc, a rather complex flash forward and flashback structure that never becomes confusing or tiresome. Like those New Wave heroines, the female character here represents the mystery of attraction felt by young men who haven’t lived long enough to understand what makes the opposite sex tick. And it is that mystery, that inscrutability, which drives one’s ardor and makes one insanely in love, a love that is perhaps neither healthy nor durable. Scenes that catch your attention are limitless and the first-time director’s immediately displayed and non-stop talent for showing off moments of romance (and the frustration that seems to accompany them) fills every interaction with real feeling.
— garydrucker, Los Angeles
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