The romantic comedy: Boys meets girl. Boy gets in argument with girl. Boy reunites with girl. Movie ends. Every movie is the same, only with different characters and a slightly modified hook. Some are better than others and legitimately entertaining. But in the end, they're all predictable and unoriginal. So when (500) Days of Summer promises to be something different, you have to be intrigued - and skeptical.
By the opening frames, however, you know you're in for a treat. The text on the screen explains that the movie is not based on any true characters, and then proceeds to call out someone by name and call her a "bitch." Classic. Then the narrator kicks in and we're told this is not a romantic comedy but a story of boy meets girl, and that is exactly what (500) Days of Summer is: a comedy-drama about a relationship, but not a predictable, Hollywood one. (500) Days of Summer is also one of the best movies of 2009.
The movie stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Tom Hansen, a mildly depressed young man who works for a card-writing company. When he sees Summer Finn, played by Zooey Deschanel, for the first time, he is immediately taken, and awkwardly sets out to win her affections. Sort of. The two do eventually strike up a relationship, and Tom is absolutely smitten, despite Summer's insistence that they just casually date. The rest of the movie details the ups and downs of their relationship, even when they're not together.
The summer of 2009 has been a real hit-or-miss season; there have been some real winners, but there have been a lot of stinkers, too. There hasn't been much that falls in the middle. Of all the movies this year, (500) Days of Summer may be the most refreshing, most original and most enjoyable film of all, for it successfully bucks the expectations of a genre so defiantly.
(500) Days of Summer works on every level. The casting and acting is pitch-perfect. Levitt is an actor who chooses his major projects surprisingly well (Brick, The Lookout and Stop-Loss recently; we'll ignore G.I. Joe). He's one of the few young actors working today who really dives into his characters and gives them depth; in fact, he reminds me a lot of Heath Ledger, whom he starred alongside in 10 Things I Hate About You. In Summer, he captures the young professional exceedingly well, showing the still-naïve innocence of love to some degree and his slight desperation in finding the perfect someone. Actually, he reminds me a lot of me in this movie.
If Levitt is excellent in his role, Deschanel was born to play hers. She has never been the traditionally hot actress, and yet there's something about her that drives guys mad. She's button-cute pretty, flirtatious and down-to-earth, and is the perfect choice to play a girlfriend in a realistic movie such as this. In fact, I can't imagine anyone else even being considered for the role.
The acting is enhanced by an incredibly strong screenplay written by Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber and superb direction by Marc Webb; they, like their actors, captures the essence of young love-or-something-like-it perfectly. Every exchange and every line seems fine-tuned to avoid sensationalism or the pitfalls of normal romantic comedies. And that's where the film really thrives. The acting is terrific, but what makes Summer work is that it looks and feels realistic. Everything that happens in the film could really happen and probably has happened to most people in some way or another.
Yet, Webb takes things one step further. The movie is realistic, but isn't restrained by reality. Webb dives into the emotions of his characters, or at least those of Tom's, and isn't afraid to show the audience what he's feeling. After Tom has sex with Summer, we get a choreographed dance sequence full of marching bands and cartoon blue birds a la Mary Poppins. Strange, yes, but charmingly perfect for the story. Webb also shows us their relationship out of chronological order, but the way we learn about what happens seems to flow nonetheless. After all, even though many romantic relationships have a beginning and an end, what happens in between - the important stuff - isn't a steady decline. There are ups and downs, and so Webb guides his film's chronology by emotion, not time.
If I were to point out faults to the film, I'd say that the movie veers away from reality just a little when it comes to the supporting cast. Tom's little sister, played by Chloe Moretz, is a wise-beyond-her-years 11-year old; we've all seen characters like this before, but only in the movies. Tom's two best friends, played by Geoffrey Arend and Matthew Gray Gubler, have many of the Hollywood quirks to them that aren't necessarily grounded in reality. But it's hard to call these characters "faults," but rather exceptions to the rule. They're entertaining and funny, and help Tom express what he can't express by himself.
(500) Days for Summer is a thoroughly enjoyable drama-comedy that is both lighthearted and sad, hilarious and dramatic. If you're going to see one romantic comedy all year, this is the one to see, even if it really isn't a romantic comedy. I smiled the entire movie, and that's rare. Highly recommended.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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