Love hurts. Love stinks. It's all you need and often the answer. So a love story should be complicated, not pat and perfunctory. A romance should run the gamut from happiness to heartbreak, the thrill of initial lust to the hard times of settling in for the long haul. Unfortunately, Hollywood only sees the Meet-Cute, the obvious actor/actress age difference, and the notion that with plot contrivances and clichés come true emotional epiphanies. To them, love is less like oxygen and more like syrupy sweet penny candy. That's why the recent indie offering (500) Days of Summer stands as something so original and refreshing. While a tad too twee for most stick in the mud cinephiles, it remains a stellar example of a daring genre tweak that works, and works marvelously.
Taking the unusual approach of realizing its title figuratively (we don't literally see all 500 days of this relationship, but we do cover quite a few), music video auteur turned first time director Marc Webb casts Zooey Deschanel as the bubbly and quirky "It" girl without the necessary defining qualities that make her a classic beauty or a smart-alecky snark artist. Instead, Summer is the girl next door as elusive albatross, a symbol of everything love has to be for failed architect turned greeting card writer Tom (a terrific Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Using a quick cut vignette-oriented style, and bouncing back and forth between the good times and the painful tribulations, the awkward beginnings and the agonizing incongruities, screenwriters Michael Weber and Scott Neustadter take their own experiences and redefine the RomCom. The movie even admits it is not a love story. Instead, it is a story about love - literally.
As the commentary track on the new Blu-ray release of (500) Days of Summer confirms, this is a tale born out of truth. There is a real life 'Summer' running around out there, a gal who adored the Smiths, zoned in on one man's veiled vulnerability and then dropped the "F" bomb - 'friends' - when things went from satiric dates at Ikea to declarations of devotion. The movie is meant to be a combination of conflicted sentiments - part kiss-off and part celebration, part personal comedy with some stingy human tragedy folded in for good measure. Sure, Webb has never met a music montage he couldn't restage several times (though the Hall and Oates bit is brilliant) and we do grow a wee bit irritated by the obvious indie irony, but that doesn't really distract us. (500) Days of Summer is so engaging and so honest that we are instantly swept up in the story and experience the psychological and social rollercoaster of both of our leads.
In fact, Weber and Neustadter make it very clear that they wanted no villains here - no heartless "bitches" or worthless macho "losers" that the audience could hiss at or easily dismiss. Indeed, (500) Days of Summer is one of those rare experiences where we see truly three dimensional people - warts, wants, needs, desires, misconceptions, and misguided beliefs and all. Summer may seem like the natural baddie - she does have the film's biggest plot twist turn of events - but she's also struggling to find herself in a world that wants to merely pigeonhole her for prettiness' sake. Tom is also incomplete - a man more talented than he lets on with aspirations that may never match his options. Think back on all the couples you've seen in lame Tinseltown takes on this material and you'll be hard pressed to find a pair as deep and varied as these two.
Better yet, there's no third party or meddling conspiracy of acquaintances to taint the conversational constructs. Most RomComs use the supporting players as a voice of reason/ridiculousness/raunch, a glorified Greek chorus that does little except explain the already obvious. If not then, then the flagrant 'fifth wheel' is the already in place paramour, the boyfriend/fiancé/husband/ex that just can't seem to take the hint (or the hike the goes along with it). In their place, (500) Days of Summer offers understanding younger sisters, equally unfocused friends, cagey co-workers and a standard assembly of amiable authenticities. Certainly there are times when the movie presses the boundaries of believability, but all fictions do. By staying away from the stereotypical, Webb and company create a near-classic.
You can sense the desire to remain original all throughout the Blu-ray bonus features. From the wonderful viral video riff on Sid and Nancy (inspired by dialogue from the film) to the telling conversations with Zooey and Joseph, (500) Days of Summer is consistently seen as an opportunity, a chance to voice another part of the love dynamic rarely discussed. The aforementioned commentary offers equal insights, struggling to explain why typical Hollywood hokum does relationships a massive disservice. Indeed, what we get out of most of this material is a dedication to truth. Webb and his cast aren't out to wander the stereotypical boy/girl path. Instead, (500) Days of Summer is meant as an antidote to all those hyper-unrealistic insults to one's intelligence.
That's why this movie is destined to become a generational giant, a work that speaks to a certain contemporary if ill-defined demographic that's too cynical to believe in magic but not completely incapable of embracing something significant. For them, (500) Days of Summer will sink in like The Graduate did in the '60s, American Graffiti did in the '70s, and the films of John Hughes did in the '80s. In a world where people are often angrier and more depressed than ditzy and daydreamy, where personal connections seem based on sex, sleaze, and social mandates, a movie like (500) Days of Summer soars. It strides to its own unique beat. It's one of the rare efforts that truly tells us what love is - its pluses and minuses, ups and downs, valuables and wasteful excesses. Thanks to Marc Webb, Michael Weber, Scott Neustadter, Zooey Deschanel, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the RomCom finally gets a heady dose of reality - and it's an entertaining and moving sight to behold.