Saturday, July 25, 2009

(500) Days of Summer

The music of The Smiths informs the tone of (500) Days of Summer, which is an appropriate choice. Like that band, the film is steeped in self-pity and angst, but it's self-aware enough to routinely poke fun at itself. In what other film could a joyous, imagined song-and-dance number suddenly jump the timeline to show that same dancing man in a fit of depression? It opens not with the birth of a relationship but its breakdown; a narrator helpfully cautions us, "I should tell you upfront: this is not a love story."

Writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber have crafted with this non-linear, quirky movie an "anti-romantic comedy," one that follows in the footsteps of Annie Hall, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Graduate. The latter in particular is expressly mentioned and even shown in the film, with the explanation that protagonist Tom Hanson, like so many others, misread the ending of the film as a child. As with Annie Hall, the male lead, a traditional, button-down sort of fellow, falls for a quirky, progressive lady who has her own thoughts about what a relationship is and is in no hurry to enter into one.

Yes, she is unfortunately named Summer, which is the first glaring misstep of the film (and not the last), but the character is wonderfully written. Summer proves her oddball nature by expressing a love for Ringo Starr and let's face it, anyone who would cite "Octopus's Garden" as her favorite Beatles song marches to the beat of a different drum, or another instrument altogether. All throughout her life men have fawned over her and the mysterious "Summer effect," but she's kept few boyfriends. For her, relationships just lead to hurt feelings and break-ups, so why waste youth on the hassle?

Much of Summer is shrouded in mystery, and rightly so: Tom places her on a pedestal and thinks of her as his soulmate, but really she’s just there and different enough to attract him. The two slave away at a greeting card office they don’t like, which sets up some great gags and the film shifts between joy and woe. When things are going well for Tom, he runs about the place in a creative frenzy, only to fly into a crazed rant when his world crumbles around him. As he screams in a board meeting that this company and all the movies and pop songs are spreading lies about true love, it works as a great tongue-in-cheek stab at the film and its impeccable soundtrack even as it works as a sincere expression of this man's despair.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the finest actor of his generation, excels in the role. He has a way of slipping into his roles completely, and not over-the-top characters like Travis Bickle or Daniel Plainview either. His characters are usually offbeat, yes, but they are relatively normal. While his performance is no revelation, he flips between euphoric contentment and wallowing sadness as effortlessly as the film around him. He is completely relatable as the naïve, loverstruck fool who turns to callousness and sexism when it all goes south. Zooey Deschanel is the monarch of ironic detachment (Michael Cera, eat your heart out), but that undercurrent of sincerity and emotion in her performances makes her so endearing. You find yourself, like Tom, wanting to lose yourself into those blue doe eyes. Director Mark Webb certainly did, as he fills the screen with a large amount of light blue to complement them. This mix of deadpan and emotion made her stand out in another great anti-rom-com of recent years, David Gordon Green's All the Real Girls, but she's even better here.

“(500) Days of Summer” is steeped in irony and cliché, but they are used to convey complete sincerity. References to European art films and ‘80s and ‘90s pop abound, but they feel less like name-checks and more like the natural conversations and imaginations of these people. Clichés such as the pain of a break-up ending with “I hope we can still be friends” work because they are real. Also ringing of truth are the friends who encourage Tom to just get over it when one has been in a relationship since middle school and the other has never held down a steady girlfriend. The only truly grating, purely cinematic cliché is the young child who is wise beyond her years, and there aren’t enough sighs in the world to convey how tired that trope is.

There is also an event, near the end of the film, that is bewilderingly unexplained and seemingly there only to make Tom sadder. Then we hear the reasoning behind it, and it gives the film a simple truth that so many rom-coms, even anti-rom-coms, neglect to mention: true love can exist, but it might not be with the person you want. I’ve yet to decide if the final line is unbearably pat or charmingly hilarious, but I laughed, so that counts for something. It, like the rest of this wonderfully directed debut from Webb, treads the line between facile indie cuteness and something far deeper and more understanding, and the result in the smartest romantic comedy since Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, even if it never comes close to the heights of that masterpiece.

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