More Than A Spring Fling

With Charm And Empathy, Stars Joseph Gordon-levitt And Zooey Deschanel Elevate The Breezy Romantic Comedy '(500) Days Of Summer' *** (3 Stars)

July 24, 2009|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,

The hero of (500) Days of Summer, Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), works at a greeting-card company, where he's a whiz at creating slogans such as "I Love Us." He's given up on his professional dream of becoming an architect but not on his dream of finding true love - and he reckons he's lucked into it when his boss hires a comely, quizzical assistant named Summer (Zooey Deschanel). She likes Tom, she really likes him. But she doesn't believe in love at first sight, or even second or third sight. She thinks she just wants to have fun.

How they find their separate truths provides the trajectory to (500) Days of Summer. How the moviemakers get there is part of what makes the movie a canny, offbeat-yet-commercial lark. Director Marc Webb and screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber slice the history of the relationship into postcard-size pieces, label these bits according to the particular day in Tom's year-and-a-half obsession, then shuffle them into a cascade of flashbacks or flash-forwards. At one point, Tom becomes so disillusioned with higher feelings that he can no longer come up with clever bromides. He denounces his company and trade for selling customers a bill of goods, because he can't get back into the mood or mind-set for packaging affirmation.

What the filmmakers do isn't that different from the greeting-card company. They've found a novel way of packaging ... not affirmation, exactly, but confirmation of romantic ups and downs common to everyone.

Where the movie winds up is maddening. The film contorts its characters to prove that true love with Mr. or Ms. Right awaits every man or woman patient enough to stumble into it.

But anyone who's suffered anything from crossed signals to crushing disappointment can take solace from Tom's experience. That's mostly a credit to the star. Gordon-Levitt exercises pinpoint control over the expressions that filter into his prematurely weary face. He has a wonderful way of making subtle lifts and drops in mood funny or striking - and making rare moments of triumph exultant.

When he sings and dances through downtown Los Angeles to Hall and Oates' "You Make My Dreams," he catalyzes some of the same happiness that Amy Adams did when she set New York's Central Park aglow in Enchanted.

Deschanel has the undefinable, hard-to-resist charm that Meg Ryan had in her romantic-comedy days. She also boasts a quirkiness all her own, as well as a lyric quality akin to Diane Keaton's. When she sings "Sugar Time" at a karaoke bar, she's nearly as unself-conscious and fetching as Keaton singing "Seems Like Old Times" in Annie Hall.

The whole movie aspires to set an Annie Hall vibe, especially when Tom keeps trying to re-create, first with her and then with someone else, the moments that he thought sealed his romance with Summer.

Sadly, (500) Days of Summer lacks the depth that even Annie Hall had - and Annie Hall, too, fell apart in the end. The movie doesn't establish the central affair as a potentially life-altering relationship. Without Deschanel's feathery, ticklish personality, Summer would barely exist as a character.

There are logical reasons for the hole in the middle of the movie. According to Summer's game plan, she wants to keep her liaison with Tom superficial. The filmmakers need to keep it light, too, so Tom can later recognize that his affair with Summer did not equal true love.

But the audience may tire of a couple that always seems to be doing goofy things like pretending they're at home in an IKEA store or yelling "penis" with increasing loudness in the middle of a city park.

You may leave this movie thinking that Tom and Summer split because they react differently to another self-destructive classic, The Gradua te : Tom sees Benjamin Braddock sweeping Elaine away on her wedding day as the height of romance; Summer realizes that Ben and Elaine have nothing to say to each other. But hey, you think, both Tom and Summer love those English alt-rockers, the Smiths.

By the time Summer realizes that Tom is correct about the concept of true love, the movie shoots way beyond all acceptable cuteness and coincidence quotients. Only when you get home will you look back on fondness to the good parts of (500) Days of Summer, which occur when Tom is looking back on some of the good parts, too.

'(500) Days of Summer'

(Fox Searchlight) Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Zooey Deschanel and Geoffrey Arend. Directed by Marc Webb. Rated PG-13 for sexual material and language. Time 95 minutes.

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