(500) Sappy Scenes? Well, Not This 'Summer'
Special to The Washington Post
July 17, 2009
We watch romantic movies like English commoners, grimy fingers smudging the wrought iron gates of Buckingham Palace, hoping to get a glimpse of the royals. We root for beautiful super beings to end up together, as if their toned bodies, genetic superiority and the manipulated good luck that brings them together have anything to do with our lives.
We also expect a prearranged happy outcome for our fictional lovers. It's in the unwritten contract between movie and audience. The agents for both movie stars worked round the clock for it. And as the end credits roll, we all go home happy. Or do we? Where are the surprises, uncertainty and crappy luck that most of us know? Where's the suspense? Where's the connection?
This is to explain why our pulmonary valves pumped overtime while watching "(500) Days of Summer." Finally, a romance that understands we mark our lives by our scrapes with love, and our defeats, rather than simply white-wedding-cake success. A movie that sidesteps the Pollyanna pornography of Happily Ever After. That dives headlong into the "Any Given Sunday" sport of normal heartbreak. No wonder we feel giddy and flushed.
Before we act as if this is high art, let it be said there are two freakin' gorgeous stars at the heart of this. It's hard to know whom to take your eyes off first -- Joseph Gordon-Levitt or Zooey Deschanel. Adorable, hot, toned and buffed. Not like us at all. So call us guilty commoners for enjoying the view.
But also call us discerning -- pat, pat -- for digging a story that works. A story we can relate to. A very familiar saga about the 500-day affair between a young greeting card writer, Tom Hanson (Gordon-Levitt), who believes wholeheartedly in love, and his co-worker, Summer Finn (Deschanel), the object of his affection, who isn't so sure about love at all.
Most of us will remember "(500) Days" for Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel. But we should remember it more for first-time director Marc Webb, and screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, who have created one of the most satisfying meta-romances since 1987's "Broadcast News." Their most obvious touch: structuring the relationship by numbered days.
Here's Tom in early days, when things seem hopeful, tentative and promising. She just wants to be friends, she tells him. But soon enough they're in flagrante delicto and there's reason for hope after all. Things seem positively resplendent as the couple visit the bedroom showroom at Ikea, lying side by side in the display beds, playing ironic house. Suddenly the everyday seems to have a special glow.
But then cut to Tom -- upset and bewildered -- many days later. Now he's ready to kill. And back and forth it goes with the scenes unfolding in nonlinear fashion. The structure perfectly reflects the way we look back on past and present relationships, mentally rewinding and fast-forwarding through our memory. Trying to make sense of the constant incongruity between delirium and despondence -- all thanks to the same person. How come everything seemed so right on Day 14 but so wrong on Days 21 though 30?
Will Tom persuade Summer that love can be real, that it can work? That's the sum total of the narrative suspense. But it's real enough to those of us who've weathered one or more romantic Waterloos. And what makes this autopsy of a love affair funny is Tom's ironic, morose commentary as he revisits what happened.
"Roses are red . . . " he begins, as if starting a familiar ode to his loved one. How we'd love to quote the next line without offending major segments of the population. Suffice it to say, it's shocking. But it so perfectly expresses his exasperation, we guffaw with recognition. We realize the Hallmark agitprop we've been force-fed in romantic movies has as much application to reality as one of Tom's cheesy cards. And we immediately understand that this movie is visiting that well-trod romantic terrain that so many of us have bungled through before: you know, real life.
Contains sexual material and profanity.