Sunday, August 2, 2009

Movie Review: "500 Days of Summer"

This is a story of boy meets girl. It is not a love story--Narrator, "500 Days of Summer"

Don't buy into that quote. Although the marketing for the new comedy has been centered around this tag, it's not exactly true.

Yes, "500 Days of Summer" is about a young man reminiscing over a failed relationship. Yes, it's quite possible that only one half of the couple ever felt anything resembling love. And yes, audience members who've ever fallen for someone who doesn't feel "that way" will probably find the film to be as painful as it is funny.

But make no mistake: "500 Days of Summer" is a love story. It's just not one of the love stories that ends the way audiences are used to. It tells the whole story, from "meet cute" to breakup and through closure.

When we meet Tom Hansen (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), he has just been broken up with by Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel). His friends and little sister find him in anguish in the kitchen. Although they remind him that girls have broken up with him before, Tom is adamant that this one is different. This is Summer. "Tell us what happened," his sister says. "Tell us from the beginning."

But anyone who's ever reminisced about an old flame knows that memory knows no chronology. We may start with the first time we met that person but emotion drags us through it's own order, from the first date to the first kiss. To the red flags that should have been warning signs but then back to the things that made us throw caution to the wind anyway. This is the order the film moves in, jumping around to different points in the relationship to give us an emotional chronology, showing us just why this affair was not meant to last.

We learn, for instance, that Tom may have been doomed to relationship failure from the start; his visions of love have been formed by pop songs, a misreading of "The Graduate's" ending and a stubborn belief in fate and destiny. No matter that Summer seems slightly aloof and that she has mentioned that she's not interested in a serious relationship and, in fact, doesn't believe in love--Tom is sure that their mutual love for The Smiths and her ability to rekindle his passion in architecture (he works as a greeting card writer) is proof that they are meant to be. He just has to break down those walls and win her over.

Not that Summer is always clear on her intentions--she's the one who advances on him in the copy room at work. She is happy to hold his hand, kiss him and sleep with him...but if things make her a bit too uncomfortable she can always say "but we're just friends." She's stated her case...but is she rethinking her rules? Just playing with his heart? Just stumbling around?

We never quite know because Deschanel plays Summer not as a fully-fleshed out character but as someone who changes based on Tom's expectations and interpretations. Tom thinks he's fallen in love with Summer because she meets all the criteria that Tom believes "The One" will possess--they have the same interests, he can teach her about architecture and everything about Summer is so enigmatic and magical that it just must be destiny. But then again, if you've set about on life with faulty interpretations, you might just only head toward heartache.

But what about Summer? She's also had interpreters--the rising divorce rates, bad relationship baggage--that have told her there's no such thing as magic and romance. Who's to say her interpreters are right? Maybe Tom just has to prove her wrong and win her over. Maybe one day she'll wake up and "just know." Then again, we've already seen how this turns maybe Summer's right. Maybe Tom's wrong. . . or maybe he's right, just not about Summer.

"500 Days of Summer" is very funny and fresh--the dialogue is clever and Webb keeps the film from growing stale by throwing every cinematic device at the screen based on Tom's emotions at the moment--there's the post-coital dance through the streets, followed by the post-breakup French New Wave homage. There's a bit of faux documentary, some animation and just about every technique that could be used...thankfully, because Webb tunes each new "trick" to Tom's emotions, it never feels gimmicky or pretentious but brings to life the feelings of a man who thinks he's in love but may just be being jerked around.

Everyone has their Summer. It's the person you fall for that never quite makes their intentions clear. And although they sometimes state that they don't want things to get serious or that you're "just friends," there's that hint of a spark, of some kind of connection, that really makes you think twice. Maybe they're just scared. Maybe they're playing hard to get. Maybe you just have to break through to them and win them over.

That, unfortunately, usually only ends one way, and that's what "500 Days of Summer" seeks to recreate. While it's not a love story in the conventional mode, it's definitely a film that explores the story of a man in love. There are moments of sweetness and bliss but they are often followed by sharp heartache and pain. Levitt and Deschanel have such a great chemistry together that every mode swing and twist feels genuine, part of a relationship between two people who have a strong bond but disagree on what, exactly, that bond is.

Deschanel is likely going to get the majority of credit for her work here. And she is fantastic. She has a mixture of quirk, intelligence and whimsy that turns every character she creates--but here, especially--into someone that every male audience member would fall for. But she never soft-pedals the harder, meaner edges of Summer, the way she toys with Tom's heart and, in the film's very tough final act, leaves out a very crucial piece of information upon seeing him again.

Levitt, playing the romantic lead, will likely be overlooked by many but he shouldn't. Tom's a nice guy and Levitt plays him as a normal man who probably listens to his heart too intently. When things are good between Tom and Summer, Levitt perfectly captures the goofiness and bliss of a man in love...but when the scenes call for him to suffer, the actor brings a sharp humor to the character that keeps him sympathetic and not overly morose.

And yet I near the end of this review feeling like I haven't said much at all...because "500 Days of Summer" is one of those wonderful little surprises that gives you something new in each scene. It's a rare film that can capture the bliss and frustration of love, the pleasure and anguish. And rare still is the film that can drag you through so many emotions--joy, frustration, humor and heartbreak--and still feel light as a feather. "500 Days of Summer" may not be a traditional love story but it is an ode to love in all its pleasure and pain.

But maybe that's just my interpretation.

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30s, engaged and living in Motown. Wrestling with life, love, faith, art, film, culture and everything in between.