The Motion/Captured Review: ‘(500) Days Of Summer’ breaks the rom-com mold

07.20.09 8 years ago

Fox Searchlight

Memory’s a funny thing.

Obviously, I can’t speak to the way other people process things, but for me, memory is anything but linear, and always active, alive.  It’s more like a web, made up of thousands of individual points and hundreds of thousands of connections between those points, connections that might not make sense to anyone but me.  Calling up a specific memory is not an isolated act of data retrieval, although I wish it did work that way.  Instead, when I dredge up one memory, I can count on also calling up dozens of others, some of which I specifically might not want to remember.

That simple truth provides both the structure and the narrative tension in “(500) Days Of Summer,” a charming new comedy from first-time feature director Marc Webb and screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber.  Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a young man at the tail end of a very broken relationship.  He warns us at the start of the film that this is not a love story, and he’s right.  That’s what transforms this from a cute little romantic fluff with a pair of winning leadsinto something almost deceptively substantial.

Obviously, this isn’t the first film to deal with the nature of memory or our relationship with it.  I love films that do it well, like “Memento” or “Brainstorm” with its gorgeous imagery of the bubbles filled with each moment of our lives or “Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind,” perhaps the best film that’s ever touched on the subject.  This is one of thos movies that’s been building buzz all year, ever since its Sundance premiere.  And now, “(500) Days Of Summer” is open in limited release, with plans to open it wider in the weeks ahead.  We ran a great interview last week by Dan Fienberg with the writers of the film.  Earlier, we posted an interview with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, as well as an interview with Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel together.  And back at Sundance, Dan reviewed the film.  I didn’t jump in at that point because there were other films to cover.  In the months since then, I’ve been looking forward to seeing the film again, and more specifically, showing the film to my wife.

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This is one of those films that required three seperate things to work just right, or none of it would work.  First, there’s the script by Neustadter and Weber.  As a matter of full disclosure, my managers also rep these guys, but that doesn’t really matter to me.  I doubt you’d ever catch me heaping praise on the rotten “Pink Panter 2,” which they also wrote.  Their script for this film walks a fine line between broad mainstream comedy and genuinely insightful material bout the ways we feel oursevles in relationships.  When Tom first meets Summer (Zooey Deschanel), she tells him that she simply doesn’t believe in love.  From my own experience, when someone says that, one of two things is true.  Either they’re intentionally setting up a challenge for you, playing a game, or they really don’t believe in love, and they don’t want someone to solve them or cure them or convince them and any attempts to do so are a waste of time.  Either one can be painful and traumatic unless you walk in eyes open, ready for the game or to embrace a casually-defined life without love.  Tom’s a romantic, so he refuses to believe what Summer says, leading to 500 days of good, bad, and everything inbetween.

The second key ingredient here is the casting, and they nailed it.  This is probably the place where a gamble paid off the most.  Neither one of these actors carries movies, necessarily, but together, they’re this perfect package.  Levitt’s been growing into an assured and identifiable leading man.  He’s had deadly timing since he first showed up on “Third Rock From The Sun,” but in recent years, he’s been racking up great character work in films like “The Lookout,” “Mysterious Skin,” and “Stop/Loss.”  With this film, he finally gives the performance that could easily make him a movie star.  He sets aside any of the affectations that he’s depended on in some of those roles and just playing it straight.  He’s charming, open, and seems more emotionally bare than in anything he’s done before.  We are often fools when we fall in love, and Tom’s no exception.  There’s no sense of Levitt protecting himself so he looks cool here.  Whether it’s a full-blown Hall and Oates musical number or awful karaoke or just confessing what he feels, there’s a raw quality to everything he does that keeps it from being cute or clever.

Zooey Deschanel has a trickier role to play because in many ways, Summer isn’t a person in this film… she’s an idea.  Deschanel has carved a nice niche for herself out of playing spacey dizzy wide-eyed naifs, about as sexually threatening as a bag of kittens.  She’s like the polar opposite of an Angelina Jolie, whose appeal comes from being so unapproachable, so terrifying.  Guys watch Deschanel and they get the impression that this is a girl they could talk to, a girl who would understand them, a girl who would love them for themselves.  That’s Summer in a nutshell, and that’s exactly what Tom sees in her that steers him so wrong.

Finally, none of it would matter if Marc Webb didn’t strike the right tone, and in scene after scene, he balances his instinct between emotional honesty and visual stylization.  He proves to have a great deal of visual wit, but he also knows how to get out of the way of a moment.  His cinematographer Eric Steelberg (“Juno,” “Quinceañera”) gives the film the same kind of bright candy coloring that most studio romantic comedies use, but to very different effect.

I’ll be honest… I hate most romantic comedies, because I think they are typically neither romantic nor funny.  They seem to me to be anti-man, anti-woman, anti-marriage, anti-love.  They are resplendent in a grotesque parody of what makes real relationships either work or fail.  Most of the time, the leads in those films, both male and female, are trapped playing horrible infantile characters who play horrible infantile games with each other.  “(500) Days Of Summer” doesn’t redefine the genre, but a film as genuine as this, as confident as this, and as direct as this, does manage to, in some small way, redeem it.

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