Saturday, August 1, 2009

The Romantic Comedy is Dead! Long Live the Romantic Comedy!

Let me just start by saying what most everyone else has said about this movie - that it is a much-needed injection of originality in a genre that has turned into the red-and-white-checkered Betty Crocker cookbook, an assortment of recipe staples.

It starts with a note that all characters and situations in this story are completely fiction and not AT ALL related to anything that might have had an impact on the filmmaker who seems desperate to prove this point to [insert girl's name here], the "bitch" who broke his heart umpteen years ago. So right off the bat, you know that this movie is somewhat on your side and has no intention of pretending that love doesn't occasionally (often?) hurt very, very much.

The 500 days encompass every day that Tom (a smashingly grown-up Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is in love with Summer (Zooey Deschanel). From the first day he meets her to the day he finally lets go. She's painted as a wrong fit for Tom right from the start, and even someone we may not be expected to like very much. But you'll probably find yourself falling for her much in the same way that Tom falls for her, by seeing (through Tom's own filter) all the positive and none of the stuff that's wrong with her. Or, I should say, what makes her wrong for him. The most crystalline example of this is Summer's declaration that she doesn't believe in love and thinks it's a fantasy. Tom, thanks to overexposure to sad British pop music and a, shall we say, youthful interpretaion of the ending of The Graduate, could not feel more differently. Yet instead of seeing this as a red flag, he does what most of us would probably do in a similar situation. He interprets this as a personal challenge. He's going to prove her wrong. She's going to fall in love with him, because -- because -- because he's in love with her. And that's just how it's supposed to work, and stuff.

This could very easily have slipped into romantic "dramedy" (I hate that word and wish there was some other word that means the same thing), but the ending (which reminds me, at least style-wise, of Kissing Jessica Stein) places it firmly in the comedy category, and I don't just mean in that it's humorous. By the end of the film, Tom has learned his lesson, but it's not what he thought at first. This story has a very high regard for love, and as such it's not about to leave Tom with the sinking feeling that his whole outlook on life and romance has been a sham.

There's a good deal of jumping around in and among the 500 days, but the relationship still unfolds in a linear way, showing us the clear stages of the relationship, but out of sequence so that we can understand it better. There are quite a few "rom-com" trappings in the mix - an abnormally worldly-wise child, a dance number, quirky best friends who make the main character look stable, and an upbeat ending - but they don't feel as if you've seen them a hundred times before.

This is also, it must be said, something of a film geek's film. There's a sequence in which Tom is at a movie theater alone and imagines himself into various scenes from various genres of art house films. In fact, several of the more surreal elements seem inspired by Woody Allen's films, most notably Annie Hall.

I'm sure this film will have no effect on the number of cookie cutter love stories that Hollywood continues to churn out, but I'm glad to know there are filmmakers who have the originality, and just as importantly the guts and persistence, to give us movies like this.

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