Monday, August 10, 2009

the welcome honesty of (500) days of summer

"This is not a love story," the narrator warns in the early moments of (500) Days of Summer, the directorial debut of filmmaker Marc Webb that recently hit theaters. But what this is, we are reminded moments later, is "a story about love." And there's a difference. A profound one, in fact. And it's one that Hollywood typically does not wish to explore, though (500) Days does with aplomb.

"The governing commerical calculus these days," according to A.O. Scott, a film critic for The New York Times, "seems to be that dudes want smut, ladies want weddings, and a picture (like "The Hangover," say) that delivers both will make the audience happy and the studios rich."

Love stories, after all, usually work out, at least according to the standard contrivances of most romantic comedies. But in real life, stories about love often do not work, and such candor is precisely what makes (500) Days a delightfully brave departure from the norm. We learn almost right away that the "love story" we are about to see is doomed, so what we're left with is "a story about love" that proceeds to provide the process of its slow demise in all its messy, mangled, gut-wrenching glory.

And that process -- our knowing the end, but not the means -- is part of what makes 500 Days work so well. The story of Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel) and Tom Hansen (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is not told chronologically, but rather with a narrative that deftly cuts back-and-forth through various high and low points in their time together. "The structure," as Ross Douthat writes in National Review, "fits with the way failed relationships are remembered -- not as a long descent from joy to sorrow, but as a jumble of competing memories, all of them potent, none of them lost."

Webb's other gimmicks -- a silly musical scene, characters occasionally talking directly to the camera, a fantastic split-screen sequence in which the lines of "Expectation" and "Reality" are clearly demarcated -- further feed our interest even though we're well aware that the conclusion is pre-ordained. As the film plays out, the subtle clues pointing to what's "wrong" begin to pile up, even if it's not obvious that they should: Tom and Summer seem perfect together, but something's just not right, and it never will be. She's just not that into him, to invert another recent Hollywood storyline.

Visually, the film provides a new way of looking at the urban beauty of Los Angeles that is also not what we're used to seeing on-screen. And then there's Tom and Summer, who more or less (though not entirely) fit the template for the quirky, quasi-hipster couples who have come along recently in films like Juno and Garden State: He's the skinny boy with the cool clothes, the occasional awkwardness and the creative passion he's either afraid or unwilling to take a risk for; she's got that achingly adorable look, that style and flair that never seems to cease, that awesome knack for doing something -- anything -- that brings a smile just when a smile seems to be needed most.

But in both Juno and Garden State, the love stories are a secondary concern. Juno is primarily about a teen pregnancy that's told from a female point-of-view, while Garden State -- as Douthat makes clear -- is built upon the male lead's attempts at achieving self-discovery. By contrast, in (500) Days, as Douthat writes, Tom has "been absolutely and completely destroyed by her -- and this, not his self-actualization or career awakening, is the substance of the movie and the source of its interest and appeal."

Gary Thompson of the Philadelphia Daily News writes that some critics have compared Gordon-Levitt's performance to that of a young Marlon Brando. High praise, to be sure, but Gordon-Levitt does indeed bring a genuine intensity to a role in which his character labors to understand that which seems to make no sense: He's the one who's helplessly stuck between hopeless and romantic, and he more than ably adjusts his emotions accordingly. Deschanel's Summer, by contrast, is presented as little more than an unattainable object of male affection. Other than the impact of her parents' divorce, we learn little about her apart from what she slowly begins to share with Tom, though even that amounts to very little. Some critics have chastised the film for this alleged flaw, but it in fact serves to make its point: Love is not something that can be forced, or willed into being. It's either there or it isn't, and it's often beyond the realm of reason or logic to try to justify the cold reality of that immutable truth.

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