Thursday, September 03, 2009

A lovely 'summer' movie

If “(500) Days of Summer” had to be given a label it would be romantic comedy, but that doesn’t really fit and implies all sorts of things that the film is not. Romantic comedies have a clear formula and expectations, but as the film’s narrator notes early on: “This is a story of boy meets girl. But you should know up front, this is not a love story.”

“(500) Days of Summer” is funny and it is romantic, but it is more thoughtful and realistic about relationships than the average assembly-line romantic comedy. The film shows both the highs and lows of being in a relationship. It will warm your heart, but it may also break it a little along the way.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel star as Tom and Summer. Tom falls for Summer almost instantly. Summer does not feel the same way about Tom. Tom believes in love. Summer does not. She does like Tom, though, and for all intents and purposes they become a couple even though Summer continues to claim she doesn’t want or need a boyfriend.

Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel may not be household names, but they should be familiar faces. Deschanel is the quirky actress who has brought her unique approach to such films as “Almost Famous,” “Elf” and “Yes Man.”

She has an innate likability that is crucial to this role as Summer does things that are unlikable. Deschanel makes it easy, though, to see why someone could fall for her even with her faults. As an on-screen couple, Deschanel and Gordon-Levitt are both charming and believable.

Gordon-Levitt got his start as a child actor appearing most notably in “Angels in the Outfield” before landing one of the leads in the TV show “3rd Rock from the Sun.” In the years following the cancellation of “3rd Rock,” he focused on developing his dramatic chops giving solid, brooding performances in such films as “Brick” and “The Lookout.”

It is nice to see Gordon-Levitt hasn’t lost his touch for comedy. Oh, he gets to brood when he is spurned by Summer, but he also has many funny scenes including a fantasy dance number that represents his sheer joy the night after he first has sex with Summer.

There’s also a very funny scene set at an Ikea with Tom and Summer running around all the store’s various home displays and pretending at being a couple. This scene represents their whole relationship because for Summer she was always playing at it. The problem is, for Tom it was real.

The film shuffles the order of the relationship with a counter appearing to indicate what day of the relationship we are seeing. This means a scene showing the early gleeful stages of the relationship is placed in direct contrast with a more painful scene from later in the relationship.

This approach may sound off-putting but it works, allowing the film to emulate the experience of looking back over a relationship. Memory doesn’t follow the rules of chronology and neither does this film.

In terms of structure, the movie calls to mind Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall.” Both films recall a relationship told out of order, use fantasy elements and experiment with film form.

“Annie Hall” had an animated sequence and characters from the present walking around in memories. “(500) Days of Summer” has the aforementioned dance number and Tom imagining himself in Ingmar Bergman films.

Where “Annie Hall” has a subtitled sequence revealing what characters were really saying instead of what they were actually saying, “(500) Days of Summer” has a split screen scene that shows the expectations of an event next to the reality.

These unreal moments don’t distract for the realistic approach the film has toward relationships. The dialogue by screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber is sharp and witty and approximates what real human beings might say.

First-time feature director Mark Webb gets the tone just right while effectively juggling the fantasy elements of the script. His touch is light, but not too fluffy. He allows the dark elements of the relationship to seep in, but doesn’t let them sink the film.

“(500) Days of Summer” is far more imaginative and genuine than the summer’s other romantic comedy fare such as “The Proposal” or “The Ugly Truth.” If you enjoyed those films, but thought they were lacking something more, you’ll find what was missing here.

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