Friday, August 28, 2009

(500) Ways to Change the "Rom-Com"

After seeing the new film (500) Days of Summer my first thought was how terrible and cliched most Romantic Comedies are compared to this fantastic new film starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel. It's about the entire romantic history between two people that meet in the workplace, which is not an entirely atypical scenario in the modern Romantic Comedy genre, but it's the way the story is told that makes this the most refreshing film of the year.

We've all seen plenty of "Rom-Coms" and by now we all know the formula by heart. Boy meets girl, they hit it off at first, then there's a big misunderstanding and the relationship goes in the tank, each principal character hangs out with their friends to go over what went wrong and figure out how to move on with the rest of their lives, and then the rest of the film is a big build up to the couple getting back together in the end. It's been done countless times, and yet, for some reason, people keep paying to see the same movie played out with different actors in different settings over and over again. Why?

Subconsciously people seem to like knowing that everything will work out in the end. It's comforting during the "big misunderstanding" phase of the Rom-Com formula to already know that Girl will forgive Boy and they will live happily ever after. It's predictable, easy, and keeps the stress level down. Afterall, we work hard enough and think hard enough all day long, right? Why subject ourselves to something that might have an actual impact on our emotions?

Hopefully, (500) Days of Summer will help show some people what they've been missing. It only makes sense because love is emotional. It's not always neat and pretty and, in fact, often relationships are downright messy and difficult. Perhaps that's why the opening narration of (500) Days warns the audience that "this is not a love story." In fact, it's the story of a young man named Tom (Gordon-Levitt) who works as a writer for a greeting card company. He's grown up believing that he will never be fulfilled as a person until he meets "the one" special girl he's destined to spend his life with. Enter Summer (Deschanel), the new girl in the office. Tom falls for her at first sight and believes his destiny has finally found him.

Summer, however, isn't so smitten. She doesn't believe in True Love and doesn't want to have a serious relationship. Her parents were divorced while she was a young girl and she, unlike Tom, grew up believing that happiness through romantic love is impossible to achieve. However, over time the two forge a relationship, despite the fact that Summer tells Tom up front that she's not looking for anything serious. Tom of course pays no attention, convinced that in time she will fall for him. It's destiny afterall, and that's exactly what would happen in any Romantic Comedy he watched throughout his life. But while Tom believes he's laying the foundation for his dream life with his soul-mate, Summer just finds Tom "interesting" and just wants to have a good time.

The film, directed by newcomer Marc Webb and written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, jumps back and forth through time, showing us various days in the relationship from Tom's point of view. Because it is revealed within the first few minutes of the film, it's no spoiler to tell you that the relationship between Tom and Summer does not end in a "happily ever after" fairy-tale, and the film then goes on to tell the story of why it didn't work. Fragmenting the narrative in this way adds a level of emotional connection to the characters that we otherwise might not have. Every time we see a day from the beginning of the relationship when everything is going so well, in the back of our minds, we know that he's heading for heartbreak.

Gordon-Levitt turns in another great performance and has proven himself to be one of the best young actors working today, able to portray gleeful joy and dismal depression with ease. Deschanel is also perfectly cast as the alluringly beautiful, yet not obviously "hot," object of Tom's desires. This truly is a special film that is at once heartbreaking and heartwarming. It finds a way to break the standard conventions of the genre, making a real, meaningful movie in the Rom-Com format. Fractured narratives that jump around through time are nothing new (see 21 Grams for a real heavy hitter) but the technique is not at all common in the Romantic Comedy genre. While in some cases it can be a gimmick, here it illuminates the emotional content and heightens awareness of smaller details. As you experience Tom and Summer's relationship, one day at a time, you may find yourself struggling with whether or not you believe in Destiny and True Love. If you're paying attention, the film reveals its position on the matter, and that I won't spoil.

1 comment:

  1. Glad you liked it so much. For me it's only behind "Adventureland" for best movie of the year. This was my review, if you hadn't seen it: