Saturday, August 8, 2009

500 Days of Summer=95 Minutes of Charming Deconstruction

Yes, 500 Days of Summer, starring Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, is contrived. Complaining about that, however, is a bit like complaining that King Kong is a movie about a big ape.

The film knows it's pushing the clever-n-cute mix, perhaps past its breaking point, from its non-linear narrative structure, to the titular pun (Deschanel's character's name is "Summer Finn"), to its faux-stentorian and intermittent voice-over, to at least two uses of split screen for no particularly compelling reason, to a Disney-meets-Bollywood-meets-Hall & Oates dance number by Gordon-Levitt in the middle, to a final joke on a character name that makes you groan while smiling.

But if you think writers Scott Neustader and Michael H. Weber or director Marc Webb are trying to present any of this as deep, ground-breaking stuff, you've misread the film's tone as much as Gordon-Levitt's character Tom Hanson misreads The Graduate's message about romance and lasting love--and the usual, real-life, disconnect between them.

For although a cartoon Bluebird of Happiness does alight on Tom's shoulder in the aforementioned "I spent last night with the girl of my dreams" dance number, it has the good sense to wink at us--broadly. The bird is in on the joke that life, especially the lives of those falling in love, can be a wonderfully cruel farce. As Tom has to do with love itself, in order to enjoy this film you've got to learn not to take it too seriously, not to force deep meanings onto things or assume the profound hand of Fate where the lighter touch of happenstance may be all that's at work.

In love, as in film making, there may be an Director calling the shots, but moments of grace might be best experienced by not looking at them too closely.

Admittedly, that's hard to do in some cases with these two leads, each of whom fills the screen with believable good looks, charm, and, in Gordon-Levitt's case, some fantastic comedic presence. I've been a big fan of his since catching 2005's unique high-school noir Brick, and have been utterly enchanted with Deschanel for a while, primarily for her work with M. Ward as the distaff half of She and Him.

As good as Deschanel is here, bringing Summer alive just enough to avoid falling into the usual nice girl/bitch complex that's usually the fate of the girls who break cute boys' hearts in this genre, the movie's strengths rest mostly on Gordon-Levitt's decidedly (and refreshingly) non-buff shoulders. (Dude's in G.I. Joe this summer too, though. Go figure...)

In fact, one of the film's best accomplishments--and its creators' best decisions--is to unapologetically tell the story of these two 20-something greeting-card company employees who meet cute, become lovers-at-different-levels, and fail to live happily-ever-after from Tom's point of view. But they do so without reducing Summer to a cipher. I'd just as happily watch this story again told from her point of view, but am relieved to have been so completely immersed in his.

Unlike the Judd Apatow film Forgetting Sarah Marshall, 500 Days doesn't need to portray Tom's romantic yearning--and the dissolution he falls into after learning he's loved far more deeply than he's been loved--as inherently pathetic and absurd in order to get its laughs. It's content to simply show the pain that can occur when affections run on different frequencies, but it doesn't mock the concept of feeling--or even wanting to feel--deeply in love. And, though Tom is absolutely shown at his most emotionally vulnerable state here in front of a woman who doesn't love him, there's no Apatowian move to cover up psychological vulnerability by going for a full frontal.

(What, you mean you didn't know that's the dirty little trick at the heart of all of Apatow's films: affect a studied nonchalance about the male body's absurdities in order to avoid having to look at the abusrdities of the male psyche too closely?)

In that earlier film, Jason Segel's character is, truly, a besotted, lazy schmuck--but the emphasis is on the lazy schmuck, at least until his third act transformation. Here, Gordon Levitt's Tom is simply a fool for love at the start and an only slightly wiser fool (a more self-aware one) at the finish. His problem isn't that he takes love for granted, it's that he finds it precious. At first he assumes it's unattainable for a guy like him; after he meets, falls for, and loses Summer, he assumes it's irreplaceable, that he only had the one shot at true happiness.

Yes, Tom's 13 year old sister tells him--much too precociously--not to wallow, but she doesn't tell him that he shouldn't want to fall in love again that deeply. It's nice to see a film that doesn't portray a man being head-over-heels--and enjoying it while it lasts--as essentially giving up his best self, compromising, giving in to some inevitable, unavoidable--if pleasant-trap. Here, Tom's in the desiring role that's usually given to women in movies: he pretty desperately wants to find the love of his life, to pair off, to marry and get that happily-ever-after. And the movie doesn't spend too much time, aside from a few obligatory bits with Tom's obligatorily neanderthal buddies, painting him as pitiable, perverse, or less of a man for wanting to do that.

Part of the reason it pulls this off is the focus on interpersonal affection and intimacy rather than on sex. It's clear that Tom and Summer aren't just cuddling in bed, but we don't dwell on it--their compatibility (or lack thereof) isn't primarily about what's going on between the sheets. There are funny bits about Tom briefly misunderstanding Summer's college nickname, and an amusing recitation from her--at Tom's stupid insistence--of the various attributes and endowments of her previous lovers.

But the real tensions in this movie aren't about how couples connect--or fail to--with various and variously skilled or sized body parts. Rather, they arise from an honest, wincingly funny, sometimes achingly painful articulation of the ways that hearts and minds sometimes just don't find true intercourse.

The major reason Tom avoids coming off as merely pathetic, though, is the actor bringing him to life. Gordon-Levitt simply owns this movie--and he knows it without being obnoxious about it. There are few actors his age I can imagine in this role who wouldn't make me want to punch this character in the neck. He moves from self-deprecating to timorous to astounded to giddy to morose to vengeful to scarred to cautiously hopeful, all without coming off as mannered or inauthentic.

Admittedly, his finest moments are at the extremes of Tom's journey: singing karaoke while a bit too drunk, trying to impress a girl he's sure he can't ever really impress, dancing through the streets after that first night together, giggling with her on the phone in the office (yeah--there are lots of echos of Pam and Jim in these scenes), fleeing a party in rage and humiliation after a devastating revelation, or, best of all, serving up a killer "You got a problem with this?" eyebrow-raise to a convenience store clerk while buying more supplies for his post-breakup bender.

His performance alone is enough to recommend 500 Days of Summer, but it's got many other things going for it. It's not every rom-com that comes along and gently deconstructs the usually-unexamined assumptions about love and romance underlying the genre. That it does so without leaving the reconstructed romantics among us feeling like total fools for wanting to believe--at least a little--in some of those myths is exactly the kind of contrivance I can live with.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Content unique to this blog space coming this weekend, I promise. (I know you've all been waiting.) But, for now, another of my blogs for Earthwatch over on Treehugger, giving you some sense of what I've actually been working on rather than writing here.