Thursday, August 6, 2009

(500) Days of Summer: Charming idyll

(500) Days of Summer (2009) • View trailer for (500) Days of Summer
4.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for profanity and sexual candor
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.6.09
Buy DVD: (500) Days of Summer• Buy Blu-Ray: (500) Days of Summer [Blu-ray] with Digital Copy

Linear narration is a conceit of published fiction.

When encouraged  or forced  to recount life-changing events that have pleased or saddened us, we never tell the story from start to finish; it's more a jumble of isolated events as they leap to mind. We interrupt ourselves constantly, jumping back and forth in time as one memory prompts another that may relate only tangentially.
Music fuels every aspect of the blossoming relationship between Tom (Joseph
Gordon-Levitt) and Summer (Zooey Deschanel); when not setting up
imaginary households in an Ikea outlet, their favorite afternoons are shared in
a downtown music store, where indie releases share bins with classic rock
albums. But friction can emerge even in this setting, as when Tom learns --
with perhaps too much amusement -- that Summer's favorite Beatle is
Ringo Starr.

Some bits of the tale are vibrant and breathlessly emerge immediately; others, perhaps less consequential but still an essential part of the whole, only surface later.

Family members and good friends  those who've known us a long time  generally can sort out the results, unconsciously sequencing things in order to "build" a coherent story from the rush of almost random date. The result, when the speaker finally runs out of steam, usually has a beginning, middle and ending ... but some work may be needed to arrange it thusly.

(500) Days of Summer, an audaciously clever deconstruction of a relationship's highs and lows, is built in just such a fashion. It's a giddy, lovingly assembled and impeccably acted little charmer with considerable bite: a script that cuts very close to the bone, and will feel achingly familiar to anybody who remembers  once upon a time  the maddening frustration of a love affair that never quite played out the way it should have (that massive gap separating hope from reality).

This is a sensational big-screen feature debut for director Marc Webb, who may have been inspired by 2000's back-to-front Memento. Webb's frothy romance doesn't require nearly as much concentration, though; its not entirely random extracts of narrative are remarkably easy to follow, thanks to a sharp and savvy script by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber.

Things get off to a clever start even before the action begins, with a snarky dedication that'll raise a giggle and remind viewers that one should never, ever mess with a writer who's in a position to extract the ultimate revenge.

And you'll want to pay close attention to this film's narrator, who never lies to us, starting with a prefatory caution: "This is a boy-meets-girl story ... it is not a love story."

The saga begins at a moment of crisis, as Tom Hansen (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) tries to figure out what has gone wrong with his relationship with Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel). His two best friends  the happily married Paul (Matthew Gray Gubler) and the hopelessly geeky McKenzie (Geoffrey Arend)  know that they're in over their heads, and so summon Tom's 12-year-old sister, Rachel (Chloe Grace Moretz, an absolute delight), a no-nonsense pragmatist with a much more objective view of life than her older brother.

Rachel, we eventually learn, has been counseling Tom for months about this relationship, and her analysis is never short of spot-on: "Just 'cause some cute girl likes the same bizarro crap you do, doesn't make her your soul-mate!"

(Although I'm hard-pressed to call this film a comedy  it's too frequently uncomfortable  the script is laden with hilariously perceptive zingers just like that.)

This essential piece of advice is forever lost on Tom, though, who has grown up believing, even in our cynical 21st century, in the notion of a transforming, cosmically destined, lightning-strikes-once kind of love.

Sighing, planting herself in front of her demoralized older brother, Rachel demands that he "start from the beginning." We then watch the events unfold. Sort of.

The celestial calendar flips back to "Day 1"  as a screen card helpfully informs us  and we meet Tom on the morning he first encounters Summer. He's a would-be architect who somehow took the wrong career track and wound up writing sappy messages for a Los Angeles greeting-card company: an alternate profession at which, to his mild horror, he's quite talented.

Summer is his boss' stunningly cute new secretary, fresh off a plane from Michigan.

She has the radiant presence, mysterious air and je ne sais quoi of a woman capable of making fools of men ... and she knows it. Tom figures he hasn't a chance, but Summer surprises him: a distinctly flirtatious moment in the office elevator, when they discover a shared interest in music by The Smiths.

Unfortunately, Tom soon discovers that Summer has a defiantly different view of life, love and the pursuit of happiness; she admits to being frustratingly noncommittal and denies the involvement of destiny. Relationships aren't worth pursuing, she insists, because they never work: "Life happens."

And as for love ... don't even get her started.

"You believe in that?" she asks Tom, in genuine surprise.

"It's love," he answers, shocked by her cynicism. "It's not Santa Claus!"

Trouble is, she likes him. The bigger trouble is, he worships her.

We experience the subsequent dance as Tom recalls it: in bits and pieces, swinging wildly forward to the clouds forming on the horizon of Day 185, and then back to the smitten early stages of Day 32. It's a giddy journey of laughter and tears, of sober declarations and intimate moments of candor, all orchestrated to a pop score that ingeniously smoothes these transitions from past to present and back again.

Rarely has music been woven so effectively into a film: Many try, few succeed. Neustadter and Weber paid just as much attention to the music, while composing their script, as the written words. "There's always a soundtrack to any relationship," Neustadter explains, in the press notes, "and songs are a great way to express certain feelings that can't be articulated."

And so Tom and Summer are drawn together as they listen to The Smiths, Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the USA," Hall & Oates' "You Make My Dreams Come True," The Doves' "There Goes the Fear" and Simon & Garfunkel's "Bookends."

They playfully bicker about their favorite Beatle; the ever-rebellious Summer, it should come as no surprise, favors Ringo.

Music fuels this film as much as its inventive structure and engaging performances. I'm reminded of the way John Hughes so capably integrated pop songs into his 1980s teen anthems (Pretty in Pink, The Breakfast Club), or, more recently, the all-essential mix tapes that fueled Nick and Nora's Infinite Playlist, or the swooningly poignant story-ballads of Once.

Gordon-Levitt, a veteran of TV's 3rd Rock from the Sun who subsequently built a film career in a dozen indie productions, makes an impressively natural Everyman: a fella with enough intelligence and savvy to get along in the world, but with the necessary emotional shortcomings to make him persuasively vulnerable. Gordon-Levitt projects honesty and decency; he makes Tom a nice guy who spirals quite credibly from euphoric cheerfulness to soul-crushing misery.

Deschanel, for years a cinematic secret weapon who elevates every film she touches  she definitely was the best part of Failure to Launch and The Yes Man  unerringly walks a dangerously fine line here. As Tom sees Summer, she must be iconic, and Deschanel's sparkling presence makes that fully believable.

At the same time, Deschanel must keep her character sympathetic despite Summer's often painfully blunt behavior. We begin to wonder, as this romantic saga continues, whether Summer actually is good for Tom. Is this film merely another riff on 1969's painfully shattering The Sterile Cuckoo?

The answer ... ah, but that would be telling.

Perhaps more than anything else, though, (500) Days of Summer deserves praise for its honesty. Neustadter and Weber don't pander to Hollywood convention; their depiction of romance is as messily free-spirited as this film's very structure. Some viewers  those with specific expectations  will be annoyed by this, and by the undertone of casual cruelty that occasionally bubbles to the surface.

To such folks, I recount an experience with an earlier film  1998's City of Angels  which I hated at first viewing. I couldn't get past Meg Ryan's eventual fate, which seemed so bloody unfair; my narrow focus overshadowed everything else. But I realized, after watching it a second time, that Ryan wasn't the focus; it was Nicolas Cage's story.

What happens to her is of no consequence; we need only understand, at the end of the film, that he is all right.

And, suddenly, City of Angels became one of my favorite films.

So: When approaching (500) Days of Summer, and swimming in its giddily engaging waters, remain open-minded while trying to determine this story's actual hero. And pay attention, as well, to all the little details.

Most particularly the quick double-take that cues the closing credits: as perfect a final scene as the one with which Billy Wilder concluded Some Like It Hot.

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