July 23, 2009

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(500) Days of Summer (PG-13)
Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel are two cuter-than-pie 20somethings in love in the bittersweet charmer (500) Days of Summer.

Tom (Gordon-Levitt) believes the girl of his dreams is out there, somewhere, and when they meet, it will be True Love, possibly at first sight. Summer (Deschanel) does not believe this. As she explains to Tom in the heady beginning of their office flirtation, she just wants to have fun, not get too serious and take advantage of the joys of being young. Whether Tom fully realizes it or not, just having fun is what she’s doing when she kisses him in front of the copy machine, what she’s doing when she starts hanging out with him in a very girlfriendy way. Tom thinks that despite her “just having fun” declaration, he can woo her over into serious falling-in-love territory. He believes this even after she tells him over pancakes that she doesn’t want to date him anymore. Even after she says those horrid words about wanting to be his “friend.”

Of the 500 days of Tom’s Summer time, we don’t see quite every day but we do see quite a few. They play out of order, sometimes with a bit of repetition, as Tom tries to figure out how it went wrong and whether there was some way to bring back this woman who, he is certain, is Meant for Him. When it comes to romance, each member of this couple is crippled by childhood traumas — a parents’ divorce (Summer) and an overly romantic misinterpretation of The Graduate (Tom).

We’re told this in a narration that, in spirit (if not exactly in tone), reminds me of Pushing Daises. A lot in this movie reminds me of that show — the big-eyed girl-next-door Summer and the moony Tom seem like bigger-budget versions of the dead Charlotte and the pie-making Ned. And like that late, potentially great TV show, (500) Days of Summer is cute, charming, lovey-dovey — even when it’s sad. Where Pushing Daises gives us a candy- colored world and a bit of fairy tale camp, (500) Days gives us an urban fantasy version of Los Angeles and a mopey alt-rock soundtrack complete with Regina Spektor and The Pixies, a plot point featuring The Smiths and winking use of Hall & Oates. (I have to take a moment here to rave about the movie’s version of L.A., which is breathtakingly beautiful. The movie showcases some of the most architecturally graceful buildings, features emeraldy green spaces and shows very little highway or beach. It is an enchanting new way to view the city.)

Deschanel is the perfect object of affection for a movie like this — and yes, by her nature, Summer is more of an object than a person. Tom loves her, he’s hurt by her, he’s mad at her or he wants her back but for the most part everything we see from her are these feelings, Tom’s feelings, bounced off her and reflected back at him (and us). Deschanel has the look of a girl who might both be a real girl working in an office (she’s beautiful but she doesn’t have that sculpted wax look of your standard starlet) and the kind of girl who periodically drives men insane. Gordon-Levitt (yes, the kid from Third Rock from the Sun but also a fine young actor in Stop-Loss and The Lookout and also Third Rock ended some eight years ago) is great as your ordinary dopey guy who may or may not be more than he appears to be. The movie urges you to make comparisons between Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate and Gordon-Levitt here but Tom is sort of the anti-Ben Braddock — no one’s telling him the answer is “plastics” or expecting him to marry (or not marry) that girl or go to this school. No one’s expecting anything of him one way or another — he’s afloat, like Ben in the pool, but without anyone suggesting that he do anything with his life. In fact he’s the only one (him and possibly Summer) who might even notice that he isn’t doing anything.

Like The Graduate (or Garden State or even the recent Adventureland, all movies which put tender post-college adultlings in potentially disappointing work and/or love situations), (500) Days of Summer lets its soundtrack do a lot of the work. References to or clips of The Smiths, Belle and Sebastian, The Pixies, Doves — it all sets a mood that could easily be too much (and might be for some people) but that helps remove (500) Days from this specific time (summer of 2009) and puts it in this era (summer of Summer) in Tom’s life. And even though the Simon and Garfunkel made me and others giggle a bit, I liked it.

(500) Days of Summer can have the feeling of a confection — not just a slice of pie, but a glossy fruit-encrusted little tart or an icing-and-candy-decorated cookie. It’s pretty to look at, a delight to consume. It’s not the grittiest or the realest or the most substantial part of your day, but it might be the most lovely. B+

Rated PG-13 for sexual material and language. Directed by Marc Webb and written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, (500) Days of Summer is an hour and 35 minutes long and is distributed in limited release by Fox Searchlight. It is scheduled to open at Red River Theatres in August.