Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Jul 18, 2009 7:58 pm 
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Rom-com with a twist is really conventional -- but still sweet

(500) Days of Summer is a romantic comedy with a new approach. What is original is not the indie mannerisms of this Sundance hit -- the references to groups like The Smiths, the meet-cute at a greeting card company, the tendentious voice-over, or the jumbled chronology, but the fact that the couple doesn't live happily ever after. This is the story of a love affair that goes south. It's made clear right off the bat that the wooing of Summer (Zooey Deschanel) by Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) led to disappointment for Tom. With its downbeat story arc and only mildly hopeful finale, Days defeats genre expectations. But it still works within a highly conventional framework.

And so you'd better like the stars. The faces of Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel dominate the screen. Indeed they seem a cute and well-matched couple, the reedy, deep-voiced Gordon-Levitt, with his buttoned-down appearance and mobile face, and the winsome, wide-eyed Deschanel. Gordon-Levitt has the more interesting and challenging role. He runs a gamut of emotions, beginning interested and doubtful when Summer becomes the boss's assistant at the greeting card company where he works; then growing hopeful, falling in love, walking on air (even doing a song and dance number with a movie-musical chorus line) after they finally have sex, playful and delighted; then despairing, hopes dashed, numbed, drunken; and briefly hopeful again after a separation when Summer walks away from Tom and her job, and they meet once more on the way to a wedding, she invites him to a party, and he thinks they'll get back together. Gordon-Leavitt is good: he's always working, and it never shows.

Deschanel is less interesting to observe. Her character is bland and elusive. Summer seems to alternate only between giving in and pushing away. It's hard not to think, if you're a man, that Summer's a terrible tease; that she breaks Tom's heart without a qualm. Didn't she say she just wanted to be friends? Yes, she did. So from the female viewpoint, Tom is pushy and adolescent. He doesn't listen. But then why does Summer engage with Tom in experimental shower sex and humorously play house with him at Ikea? He's a romantic who believes in destiny. The twist is that Summer is converted to a belief in these things by finding a man, but that man is not Tom. Meanwhile the failure of his romance with Summer has shattered Tom's romantic illusions. One good thing comes out of it for him: he can't write cheery jingles anymore and goes back to pursuing a career as an architect.

Deschenel has had many roles in films, but they linger mostly on notes that are winsome and fey; she's the Hollywood quirky deadpan girl (notable efforts are All the Real Girls, The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy, and Tin Man). Gordon-Leavitt, on the other hand, has shown daring and skill in the range of roles he's played in Manic (a violent, disturbed youth), The Lookout (a brain-damaged sports hero who turns to crime), Latter Days (a homophobic Mormon), Mysterous Skin (a gay hustler), Brick (a high school detective), and Stop-Loss (a gung-ho young soldier). He's been good in all of these and they've been interesting films. The conventionality of this relatively mainstream rom-com role in (500) Days of Summer is, paradoxically, a new challenge for him. Deschanel, who definitely had a fresh appeal when she started out, has chosen some notably dubious films to be in, such as Elf, Failure to Launch, Yes Man, and The Happening. Though fans of Deschanel say this is one of her best parts, both the actress and the writing of her character weaken the film. Snapshots of previous lovers aside, Summer has no background, her job is undefined, and we don't get to know her friends. The cute but recessive Deschanel doesn't emerge as a clearcut personality.

Despite the twist of the negative ending, the more you think about (500) Days of Summer the more conventional it seems. Its worst element is its gratingly insistent shifts back and forth in time over the famous 500 days, signaled by an onscreen clicker whose specificity (day 442, day 3, day 157, whatever) doesn't keep it from being ultimately numbing and confusing. If you can keep all these numbers in your head, good for you; but the shuffling seems anything but enlightening. Sure, it's meant to convey the mosaic of feelings a tangled relationship leaves behind in the memory of the victim. But it's also a needless distraction, a "modernist" device to keep the audience busy but a sign the filmmakers neglected the harder job of crafting a coherent narrative. A reversed or jumbled chronology is a cliché by now. The only enlightenment we get from this one is a sense of the obvious: that sometimes things were going well between Tom and Summer, and sometimes they weren't. And that Summer always saw things differently from Tom, because he fell in love and she knew all along he wasn't the one.

Something utterly routine is the pair of buddies who'd like to advise Tom but can't because the nerdy McKenzie (Geoffrey Arend) is a perpetual loser with the ladies and the chiseled-cheeked Paul (Matthew Gray Gubler) has been with the same girl since elementary school. The only difference from convention is that they aren't comical or tricksters as in films like 40 Days and 40 Nights or Knocked Up.

But while the latter two movies may be more fun, (500) Days of Summer, despite my reservations, is enjoyable viewing because of the cute couple that charms you and the heartbreak that touches you. Cuteness and charm and heartbreak, if you don't intrude on them too much, go a long way, and even the convoluted time-scheme can't obliterate them. But if Marc Webb and writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber sought to reinvent the wheel, they still came up with the familiar round utensil.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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