Tuesday, December 22, 2009

(500) Days of Summer

Rom-com quirk-fest (500) Days of Summer announces itself as a response to, or examination of, all the dime-a-dozen rom-com quirk-fests sleeping around these days. The main character, Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) explains several times throughout the film that our contemporary sadnesses are often attributable to a reliance upon pop music, love stories and fairy tales. He stole this theory from High Fidelity, but whatever.

Tom works at New Hampshire Greetings, authoring greeting cards that, throughout the film, inevitably offer a reflection of his love life. His career then takes a turn for the worse whenever Tom is heartsick, so it’s worth asking how he’s been at this job for four years when, according to the film’s narrator, he has been down-in-the-dumps and wearing the same Joy Division t-shirt since he discovered mopey British pop at eight years old.

The five-hundred days of the title refer to the amount of time it takes Tom to meet Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel), fall in love with her, win her over, get his heart all busted and broken, and then finally get over her. The film zips back and forth among the days, always carefully numbering them. The film begins: on Day 488, Summer has a wedding ring on, while somewhere around 350 she apparently dumps him. This is just one of several gimmicks that director Marc Webb pulls out to disguise the film as something more profound than the generic May-to-December romance that it is.

Occasionally, Webb’s trickery works. Several standout sequences provide rushes of pathos and laughter, including a top-notch production number set to Hall and Oates’ “You Make My Dreams”. This kind of surrealist ‘what’ll they think of next?’ tomfoolery has been attempted before, of course, but a good production number is almost always fun and in this case Webb proves himself to be delightfully inventive. He also doesn't rely on cheap jokes: another winner involves Tom showing up at Summer’s rooftop party for a harsh dose of 'she's just not that into you'. Here, the screen splits into two halves, with the left labeled “EXPECTATIONS” and the right “REALITY”.

But never mind the kitchen-sink visual aesthetic: most of the film’s success comes from the two lead performances. Deschanel, presumably cast by Alexandra Patsavas, is a post-modern choice for the role. As she gains in popularity (the actress and the character) you can see the trail of broken hearts leading away behind her - the film comes close to literally illustrating this. Then, there’s few actors working today who could infuse the monotonous Tom with as much honesty as Gordon-Levitt, whose low, crackling voice defies his boyish frame, as his eyes consistently betray his feelings for Summer to us and to her.

So what was it, though, that was supposed to set this movie apart? What does this movie have to say about relationships that we haven’t heard a hundred times before? As much as I thoroughly enjoyed the romantic antics of the first two thirds, it slowly creeps up that the film has no answers to those very questions it poses.

Borrowing another page from the superior High Fidelity, Tom and Summer are purported to be wise and knowing heroes, each with conflicting theses on the nature of love and each poised to learn something from the other.

The film sets up in the opening credits that at only eight years old, Tom learned from The Smiths that storybook love is the only thing worth living for (so stay emo 'til you find it, kids!) while Summer learned from her parents' divorce that love as we have it marketed to us doesn't exist. That these two crazies sociopathically carry these opposing worldviews into their adult lives until they meet each other ought to make for a great showdown. But Tom and Summer don't learn any lessons from each other: Summer learns that Tom was actually right the whole time. Love as we know it from romantic comedies does exist, it's just Tom wasn't the right one for her.

That this is where (500) Days of Summer finds its endpoint, with the eight-year-old Smiths fan proving to be a romantic prophet, finally destroys any commentary it makes on the toxins we receive from watching romantic comedies. When you take away the trick storytelling, the story being told here is really just another rom-com like any other at the bottom of the barrel. The vomit-inducing coda confirms this, as Tom meets a girl named Autumn and knowingly grins at the camera. No lessons learned here, there or anywhere, but thanks for playing.

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