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(500) Days of Summer

Reviewed By Mel Valentin
Posted 07/17/09 03:53:00

"Ladies and gents, the next Little Miss Juno."
5 stars (Awesome)

SCREENED AT THE 52ND SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: A critical and audience hit at the Sundance Film Festival in January and every subsequent film festival between then and now, "(500) Days of Summer," the feature film debut by commercials and video director Marc Webb from Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber’s screenplay, can be described as an “anti-romantic comedy.” "(500) Days of Summer" is this year’s "Little Miss Juno," an independently financed, refreshingly idiosyncratic, honestly insightful comedy-drama by first-time filmmakers, made with an A-list cast (if not A-list salaries). "(500) Days of Summer" is a bittersweet, subversive twist on romantic comedy conventions, and with its honest, sometimes painfully honest insights into modern love and its many discontents, relatable to audiences, regardless of their current romantic situation.

Borrowing a page from the French Nouvelle Vague, Webb, Neustadter, and Weber structure (500) Days of Summer around the non-linear, subjective memories and state-of-mind of the central character, Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a music-obsessed, twenty-something, greeting-card writer and one-time architecture student, as he obsessively revisits memories of his romantic relationship with Summer (Zooey Deschanel), a commitment-phobe who Tom saw as the “one.” Tom’s best laid plans go awry when his unrealistic expectations for reconciliation meet harsh reality, a clash Webb illustrates cleverly via split scene when a post-break-up Tom stops by Summer’s apartment for a party. Naturally Tom turns to his best friends, McKenzie (Geoffrey Arend) and Paul (Matthew Gray Gubler), for advice. He also turns to his wise-beyond-her-years sister, Rachel (Chloe Moretz), for advice. Not surprisingly, she’s dead-on in her romantic advice to Tom: move on and find someone else. Tom, of course, can’t.

To Webb and his screenwriters credit, Summer isn’t a villain out to break Tom’s heart, but a complex, if frustrating (because we see her exclusively through Tom’s eyes), character in her own right. In refusing to define her relationship with Tom, Summer paradoxically does it anyway. She makes Tom subject to her arbitrary, capricious nature. In defining their relationship (with Tom’s grudging acceptance), Summer always has control, always has power (over Tom). This dynamic proves to be insurmountable for Tom, who desperately wants Summer to commit to him. He thinks she’s the “one.” She doesn’t think he’s the “one.” She claims she’s not ready for more, but that only hides her doubts about Tom as a long-term romantic partner.

If the gender roles in (500) Days of Summer seem reversed, then perhaps it’s because romantic comedy conventions reflect outdated, outmoded ideas about romantic relationships. In the new millennium, men not only feel emotional pain, they can express it as well (to other men, female friends, and relatives). Stoicism and the suppression of emotional expression usually associated with masculinity aren’t universally applicable anymore. Neustadter and Weber’s screenplay ably reflects the nuances of romantic relationships, from the first connection (e.g., shared tastes), to the first blush of success (e.g., emotional and sexual intimacy), to the splintering heartbreak that follows the dissolution of a relationship and to the gradual acceptance of reality, not as we want it to be, but as it is.

Over the last four or five years, Zooey Deschanel has become the “Queen of Quirk,” essentially playing variations (if that) on the same character, the eccentric object of desire for hipsters, geeks, and other assorted malcontents, e.g., Gigantic with Paul Dano, last year’s Yes Man with Jim Carrey, and Failure to Launch with Justin Bartha). Luckily, Deschanel keeps her mannerisms in check, giving a more restrained, grounded performance here than she has in the past. She doesn’t overplay Summer’s mannerisms or even her fickleness.

Not surprisingly, the emotional center of "(500) Days of Summer" belongs to Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s ("The Lookout," "Brick," "Mysterious Skin," "Manic") heartbroken Tom. He’s a hopeful (as opposed to hopeless) romantic battered by the vicissitudes of love, of falling in love with the “wrong” woman (wrong meaning a woman who won’t or can’t fully reciprocate his feelings). Levitt brings an almost crushing emotional vulnerability to Tom, making Tom’s difficult emotional journey all the more moving and, ultimately, all the more honest and authentic.

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